top of page


March 9, 2022


A shirt is a garment intended for the upper part of the body with buttons up the front, a collar, sleeves and is often made of cotton, linen, wool, or silk. The shirt in its current form emerged in Europe in the seventeenth century as a sweat-wicking undergarment worn beneath waistcoats and coats (what we now call undershirts). At the beginning of the eighteenth century, shirts stopped being hidden beneath other fabrics and cuts and were transformed into a standalone article of clothing for men. Because only the wealthy could afford to frequently buy, alter, and wash them, the shirt became a symbol of gentlemen who could afford this luxury. Others, on the other hand, thought the shirts impractical because they required daily washing, for they were readily soiled. Shirts remained a sign of the upper-class while being worn by middle-class men, despite the market for them expanding as better laundry techniques emerged after the middle of the nineteenth century.

An early example of a shirt, circa 1870, @MET

According to records, before the London company Brown, Davis & Co. invented the first form of a shirt coat (that is, the appearance of the shirt we wear today) in 1871, early shirt designs were worn over the head. Additionally, the shirt did not initially have chest pockets, which were added years later (due to the removal of the waistcoat). Pens, cigarettes, and other objects that would ruin the lines of the shirt were carried in the breast pocket. Therefore, according to fashion theorists, a real shirt shouldn't have pockets. What sets the shirt apart from other items of clothing is the collar, of which there are over twenty variations, and in addition to serving as a setting for a tie, it is also a style choice. The collar, which has over twenty varieties and serves as both a setting for a tie and a style choice, distinguishes the shirt from other articles of clothing.

Screenshot 2022-03-10 at 10.02.01.png
Screenshot 2022-03-10 at 10.02.40.png
Commercial for early washing machines

The men's shirt with a simple cut and a collar gained popularity towards the end of the nineteenth century, after which the wealthy wore shirts until the second part of the era. In keeping with the continuously shifting fashion, the women's shirt, or a blouse, adopted various styles and features. It is noteworthy that French fashion critics at the beginning of the nineteenth century claimed that an exquisite Parisian woman should own roughly 600 outfits and just 12 shirts. Thus, they emphasized that although dresses were meant for ladies, shirts essentially belonged to men's fashion expression. However, some women resisted such a notion: it is known that the French Empress Josephine owned no less than 498 shirts with letters and numbers and that she changed them as often as three times every day. Nevertheless, shirts were well-established garment by the turn of the twentieth century, and the cuts, materials, and patterns varied according to the task. Everyone wore one, although the white colour, which had previously been associated with wealth, has since lost this connotation while maintaining sophistication.

The white shirt has enormous cultural importance for many different social groups and therefore deserves iconic status. Even though it was initially referred to as "underwear", this item reflects important social developments. For instance, white has been a symbol of power since the era of the important dandy Beau Brummel and his fabled white shirt, the Gibson girl with her embellished white blouse that defined the ideals of female beauty in the nineteenth century, and NASA employees and the new generation of technology-obsessed office workers. This shirt takes on a considerably more informal tone thanks to Patti Smith, a musician and songwriter, who wore it on the cover of her debut album “Horses” in 1975. The white shirt is a reliable sign of societal change in Western culture. Men's values of rigidity, consistency, and constancy were fulfilled by the colour white, whereas women's aspirations of purity and independence were symbolized by it.

Beau Brummel
Screenshot 2022-03-10 at 10.02.27.png
NASA employees
Hugo Boss ad
Cover of Patti Smith's debut album, 1975

White was initially favoured by women because it stood for restraint, harmony, and purity. As time went on, this idea of clothes evolved past outmoded conceptions of the female body and became a sign of resistance—one that reflected her uniqueness. By creating alternate cuts to those worn by wealthy men in the nineteenth century, designers like Coco Chanel aimed to eliminate barriers between gender and class, thereby relegating the white shirt to women's fashion. The shirt, worn with a skirt suit, became a wardrobe essential for European women as the use of women in the workforce increased in the years before, during, and after World War I.

Katherine Hepburn
Marlene Dietrich

One of the meanings of the white shirt, as adopted by Hollywood in the 1920s, is emancipation via professional endeavour. The white shirt, a working woman staple, gains additional notoriety when worn by celebrities who favour the masculine/feminine style, particularly Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich, and Katherine Hepburn. In a same vein, Hollywood romanticizes or dramatizes the white shirt. Marlene Dietrich wore it with a man's suit and tied in a more feminine rendition. The garment, worn by Katherine Hepburn in the 1938 movie “The Holiday”, captures her boundless spirit. The white shirt looks good in Hollywood movies because of how the lighting affects clothing. Additionally, it promoted the emancipatory image of the contemporary, independent, and working American woman of the 1930s. The attractiveness of the democratization of fashion is also impacted by the simple white shirt and the elegant clothing designed for the movies.


Shirts for men and women have buttons on various sides. Specifically, wealthy women used not have to dress themselves because they typically had a personal assistant who took care of it. Men's shirts, on the other hand, had buttons on the opposite side to make it simpler to access the weapon. Remarkably, this custom is still practised today because we can instantly tell whether some clothing belongs to a guy or a woman. But do we still want to limit clothing today based on gender?

Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger
Leandra Medine
Diana, Princess of Wales
Lauren Hutton

This brief historical account simply emphasises how effective clothing is as a method of communication. It is obvious that these statements were stronger and more direct in the past, but that the same outfit now conveys somewhat different messages. We convey strength, neatness, and professionalism by donning a white shirt, yet, like Patti Smith, we also appreciate it in those more laid-back settings. It has numerous faces and countless style games and is undeniably timeless. After all, Karl Lagerfeld added, "If you ask me what invention in fashion I would most like to have made, I would reply the white shirt." Everything else comes after it.

bottom of page