Friday, July 22, 2011

A Brief History of Men's Shirts from 1900-1949

Something I've always been interested in as you know is the evolution of clothing. I'm always curious to know things like how this:
approximately 1840
Turned into this in a period of 20 years:

Now granted men's fashion has changed a bit more slowly than women's fashion in the past few centuries, but we can all agree that it has still evolved fairly quickly.

(Nancy note: This girl lived the next town over from me and went to my rival high school at the same time as me. She was even on our rival cheerleading squad. Please don't think any less of me...I promise no one else from that area talks like her.)
But all joking aside I could write a book on how men's fashion has changed in this century alone, but what I'd like to do today is talk about how a man's everyday shirt has changed since the beginning of the last century.

Ca. 1900s (1907ish)
Here's an example of a pretty typical late 1900s shirt. There is a high detachable wing collar (rounded) and two cuff options. The sleeve plackets are pointed and the yolk is straight. This is what is called a "coat shirt" because if the fact that it opens all the way down to the bottom and can be slipped on like a coat.

The type of work shirt you wore, like today, depended on what you did for a living. Business men typically wore suits and white shirts of finer material while day laborers wore more colored shirts of much sturdier fabric (color hides stains and dirt). A man had many shirt patterns and colors available. Polka dots, double stripes and single stripes were popular as well as the traditional white.

Both acceptable shirting fabrics. 

Collars came in detachable variations like the shirt pictured above and rarely softer attached collars. In the early 1900s collars were much more popular as they increased the longevity of the shirt. Shirts were still yet to be mass produced and a gentleman typically had less than a weeks worth of shirts in his possession at any given time. You will also note above that the collar is quite high. This is left over from the late Victorian era, but as we approached the end of the decade shirt collars start to shrink in height.


 late teens (source)
So this is a Negligee shirt or what I would call a semidress or casual shirt. It is not a night shirt. That's something completely different. (Nancy note: the term negligee doesn't become associated with bedroom attire until 1930s.) This shirt also has a detachable collar option and what's called a front-plait opening down the front. The placket ends a little more than midway down the shirt and the shirt is meant to be slipped over the head, though the pattern does give you the option to make it a coat shirt. The neckline is still quite high, but lower than the previous shirt. The rounded collar was still the more popular style at this time, but it would be going out of fashion shortly.

There are two versions of the shirt pictured above. The far left is the negligee version, the center collarless version is what's called an outing shirt. This shirt could also be considered a work shirt if it was made with a sturdier fabric. The type of shirt at this time was determined mostly by the fabric used. Lighter fabrics for casual wear, slightly heavier fabrics for casual wear, and sturdier still for work shirts. The pointed yolk was typically found on casual shirts like these, but on occasion it would pop up in more formal wear.

From a Guild to Making Shirts reprinted 1928 

Many colors were still popular at this time. Stripes, half stripes, and even on occasion checked fabrics were worn.

Early 1920s
This shirt features a slightly more modern look. You still have the option for a detachable collar, but the main image of this pattern shows a pointed attached collar. Even the detachable collar is slightly pointed. The shirt again gives you the option of coat shirt style opening or front-plait style opening. There are two cuff options including a detachable reversible soft cuff.

During the 1920s the silhouette of the shirt begins to change due in part to improved manufacturing techniques. Shirts become more fitted, with straight fitted sleeves. French cuffs are the norm. Pointed soft attached collars become more and more widespread thanks to the invention of the home washing machine. Rounded detachable collars are still popular among the older population, but for the trendy folks pointed collars become the normal shirt for business wear. They were secured with collar studs or pins and a tie. Detachable collars are still popular among day laborers for their ease of care and increased shirt life.


Now we're cooking with gas, as they say. This is really starting to look like today's men's shirt. This pattern only gives the option of the coat shirt opening. Plait-front shirts are pretty much obsolete. The placket still ends quite high on the shirt, but this is in accordance with the pants style of the 30s in which a high waist was preferred.

French cuffs, pointed sleeve plackets, and a longer shirt collar point are all features of this particular shirt. Also popular at this time. Collar stays!

Which were really more like tie clips, but still amazingly effective. Clip stay to tie and each side of collar and voila! Collar stays put all day long. Genus says I.


The 1940s bring with it an explosion of different styles of shirts. Shirts become more and more casual. Short sleeve shirts are very stylist for casual wear, sport wear and even work wear.

Fabric choices explode. Flannel, cottons, rayon, prints, prints, prints, and more prints all become popular for work and casual wear.

Western shirts become popular in the late 30s and into the early 40s. This is caused the increased popularity of western movies and stars like John Mack Brown, Red Berry, Harry Carry, Jr. and more. I have a secret love for these, but Mr. Fiance has promised me he will never wear one. Bummer. 

The button down business shirts stay about the same. Detachable collars disappear and the softer pointed collar firmly cements its place in men's fashion. Shirt tails become shorter and plackets extend as the waist on men's pants lowers.

And that, my lovely friends, is that. If you found this helpful drop a comment in the comment section below. Next post: 1950s-1960s.

If anyone was confused by some of the terms I used in the post here's a helpful diagram.


Additional References and Some Good Supplemental Reading Recommendations:


Debi said...

Fascinating post! I love it!!

mamafrog said...

Was checking out your blog and found this article. Very well done and intelligent, so I'm going out on a limb here and be picky. I'm a seamstress and have been for over 30 years, articles like this fascinate me when they get into the history of fashion and clothing. So please understand I'm not being mean when I say this, it's yoke to describe a part of a man's (or woman's) shirt, not yolk like an egg. Other than that I enjoyed it.

Maceo said...

Hello there, love the article!
Was just wondering where you got the 1920s shirt pattern from?

Kind regards,

Nancy said...


Ebay. 1920s patterns pop up there very regularly so keep your eyes open. Women's patterns are more common than men's, but they do pop up from time to time. You can expect to pay anywhere from $20-$50 for a good condition pattern. If you have any questions feel free to email me.

Nancy (Bomber Girl)

Lee Dove said...

Wow, thank you for posting this! A timeline of the progression of men’s wear is indeed interesting. My all-time favorite is the Victorian style. The fashion just looks so intimidating and sophisticated that every man must wear it with pride and glory. :]

Kelly said...

...the yolks on meeee ...
I am portraying Norton S. Baskin in a play, "Cross Roads: ... " by Deborah B. Dickey, in St. Augustine, Fla, a town that loves to play dress up.

Anonymous said...

Good info, but do want to clarify that men's shirts were mass produced in enormous quantities in the late 19th century.

Unknown said...

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for a great article. I was looking for something to help date some old photographs and this helped so much. I have a question about the first 1900s image (1907ish)where you wrote "a pretty typical late 1900s shirt." Did you mean late 19th Century shirt?
Thanks again for a fascinating story of men's shirts! Connie, Raleigh North Carolina

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Thanks for the post! Red Chief presents a vast array of stylish clothes for men that will leave you spoilt for choice.

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