THE DRESS SHIRT
Up until one momentous Monday morning back in 1872, shirts and collars were all of one piece. This particular "blue" Monday was wash day for Mrs. Orlando Montague of Troy, New York. However, Mrs. Montague had finally had enough of laundering the week's worth of filthy shirts her husband had worn, and realizing that it was not the body of the shirt but the collar that seemed to be attracting the lion's share of the day's grime, she decided to do something about it. In an "inspiration of the moment," she wielded a pair of scissors and deftly snipped the offending collar from its moorings, then tied strips of the string to it to fasten it back on after she'd washed it.
Thus was born the first detachable collar, an invention that was soon seized upon by the Reverend Ebenezer Brown, who wisely foresaw the vast commercial possibilities of the item. He immediately began stocking them in his dry goods store, and the women of Troy picked up some extra spending money by laundering collars for him.
Other clever entrepreneurs soon caught on to the notion of detachable collars, so that a gentleman, when he went to work, could do something more than simply roll up his sleeves in order to keep his shirt ink-free.
It wasn't long before Troy, New York, rivaled that other fabled Troy halfway across the world and a couple of thousand years back in history, as the former became renowned as the detachable-shirt-collar capital of the world.
The detachable collar remained popular right up until World War I, when returning American Servicemen, having lived in their army uniforms for a couple of years, once again discovered the assets of the soft attached collar. Once the boys experienced that kind of comfort around their necks, they weren't about to go back to those stiff, starched collars, and detachable collars soon went the way of the dinosaur.
In the nineteenth century the shirt industry was not particularly sophisticated. As Apparel Arts noted in 1931, "A square of cloth gathered into a yoke at the shoulder, with shapeless sleeves and a hole for the neck, was called a shirt. Neckbands had but three sizes: fourteen, fifteen and sixteen inches." But to go that one (or even two) better, shirt sleeves had only a single size: long, to accommodate any length arm. Your shirt didn't fit you so much as you fit your shirt, and if you didn't well, that was just too bad. In fact, it wasn't until the beginning of the second decade of this century that measured sleeves lengths replaced the arm band as the method of setting one's cuffs correctly, and this, not coincidentally, occurred about the same time that soft cuffs were being introduced on shirts. After a prolonged absence, comfort was finally making a comeback.
Changes came slowly in the shirt industry. It wasn't until the late 1800s, for instance, that color was finally introduced into shirts; and it was about this time that manufacturers found that if they laundered the shirts before offering them for sale, they appealed more to the prospective shopper's eye and, as a result, moved off the shelves that much more quickly.
Innovations continued during the twentieth century. In 1920, the semi-stiff collar was introduced by John Manning Van Heusen; eight years later, Cluett Peabody & Co. invented the Sanforizing process, which prevented the shirt from shrinking when it was laundered; and in the 1950s, Brooks Brothers became the first store to offer a polyester-blend dress shirt, a move that, up until the oil crisis of the late 1970s, kept the cost of shirts down and unfortunately had the effect of sanctioning the use of synthetic fibers in the industry.
Since the 1950s, while manufacturers' changes have been few, styles have changed radically. Paralleling the excesses of the Peacock Revolution, shirt collars grew to disproportionate lengths while colors took on the nightmarish hues of Day-Glo paints and subway graffiti. Today, the palette has sobered and the collar styles have returned to more traditional proportions that are more in keeping with the current conservative mood of the country. It's quite simple, really: fine-quality dress shirts are made of 100 percent cotton. Naturally, they cost more than polyester blends, but what you pay for is unrivaled comfort and a look that bespeaks luxury and tradition. As a natural fiber, cotton respects the natural needs of the body. It breathes, allowing the body to cool itself when necessary, and its absorbs moisture when the body perspires. As the article of clothing most in contact with the body, the shirt needs to act almost as a second skin. Cotton performs this function best.
Beyond comfort, finely combed cotton shirtings look better because of the density of their weave as well as because of cotton's ability to take color, thus giving a truer response to dyes. There is a clarity and richness to their color which simply cannot be duplicated with blended fabrics.
The natural sheen of fine cotton shirting is warm and subtle, not at all like the harshness of pure polyester. Except during the 1920s, when, perhaps due to the influence of those like the fictional Jay Gatsby, there was a brief flirtation with silk, cotton has always been and continues to be the shirting fabric of the well-dressed man.
Once the shirt material has been examined, the next place to look is the shirt collar. Indeed, there are some haberdashers who would suggest that this might be the first place to look, since the collar is all one ever sees of the shirt, that and perhaps one-half inch of cuff. In many respects, the shirt collar plays a role similar to that of the silhouette of the suit. It sets the tone of one's dressing style and is probably the key to the shirt's longevity.
Perhaps the most important aspect to consider is the relationship of the shirt collar to one's own physical proportions. Proper balance is the ideal. If a man is large, with a broad face and bullish neck, nothing will appear sillier under his chin than a tiny collar - rounded, spread, or otherwise. Conversely, a high-set collar with 3 1/2-inch points will overwhelm a small man with delicate features.
For the average-size man wearing a standard regular straight-point collar, the collar points should be no smaller than 2 3/4 inches nor larger than 3 1/4 inches. A man much larger would do better with a 3-inch to 3 1/4-inch collar. Generally speaking, the larger the man, the larger the collar he can take. But one oughtn't push this notion too far. The proportions of the shirt collar can either draw attention to a man's physical irregularities or de-emphasize them, which is generally the more flattering course to follow. Therefore, if you have a short neck, look for shirt collars that lie flat. If your neck is particularly long, a higher band collar seems to shorten its length. No matter what size you neck is, however, the shirt collar should always show approximately one-half inch of material above the collar of the jacket. In the end, let common sense prevail.
The ideal shirt collar forms an upside down V, with the edges of the collar meeting at the throat. No space should be left between the edges. If the shape and width of your tie is appropriate to the shape and size of the shirt collar, no extra space is ever needed. Such collars are not always easy to find today because mass manufacturers want their shirts to fit any size tie and knot. However, one should try to find shirts whose collars have the least tie space between them so that a small elegant knot will not be left in a vacuum between the collar points.
One more thing to remember about a shirt collar: a fine collar is always stitched around the edges to stiffen and hold the folded material in place. In general, this stitching should not be more than one-quarter inch from the collar's edge. The finer the shirt, the finer the stitching. High-quality shirts are sewn with a single needle, which produces a