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114 29 Stockholm, Sweden

© Whole Threads

A Search for the Essence of the Shirt


This post is a follow-up of An Intricately Woven Love Story.


A culture is born, evolves and declines over thousands of years. It finds its own specific way to socialize, to exercise authority, to raise children and explain the known and the unknown to new generations.


”Savages are naked; civilized people are born with clothes.”  R. Broby-Johansen


In all civilizations the body is dressed. The design of the garments, as well as the way they are used, tells a story about the culture we live in. 


As we can see from it’s cut, design and details, our contemporary basic shirt mirrors the fragmentation of our culture. We seem to have lost touch with the simple things in life, with wholeness. A search back to ancient cultures might help trace the Shirt back to its natural and original shape. So, since it is actually a man’s shirt that became the modern shirt…  


Let’s look at His Story


At the dawn of our civilization the primary industry is farming. The materials for clothes are also farming products: linen or wool. The respect for the art of weaving, and the rectangular piece of cloth that is created in the loom, is too great to cut it up in pieces. A woven piece of cloth is used around the body as it is, folded, tied or draped.


There are early examples of sewn garments though. In an Egyptian tomb from around 3.000 BC, a linen shirt was found. Its shoulders and sleeves had been finely pleated to give form-fitting trimness while allowing the wearer room to move. The small fringe formed during weaving along one edge of the cloth had been placed to decorate the neck opening and side seam. But this garment belongs to another civilization. 


In the cradle of western civilization Greeks and Romans alike wore a draped cloth around the body. Closest to the body a chiton is worn. This is the first primitive shirt, made by a folded piece of fabric. It was sleeveless and simply pinned at the shoulder.


During this time cut and sewn garments were the signs of a barbarian. 


As the Roman Empire falls at the end of the 5th century, another era begins. Its new middle class take over administration, trade as well as the production of clothes. Weavers become more skilled and the first tailors are mentioned. With this art the respect for the whole, uncut fabric is forgotten. Sleeves are invented and a shirt that looks like a T-shaped tunic is born. Clothes become more and more closely fit to the body.


Christian asceticism influence the way both men and women dress during the Middle Ages. Loose hanging garments, in a simple style, are worn. The shirt is a plain, undyed garment worn next to the skin, under regular garments. It’s only visible on humble characters, such as shepherds, prisoners, and penitents. 


Buttons with buttonholes for fastening first appear in Germany in the 13th century.


This novelty spread with the rise of snug-fitting garments during the following century in Europe. Garments no longer need to be pulled over the head. From now on the shirt gets increasingly tighter.


In the transition to modern Europe and capitalism, there are new ideals and an increasingly rapid change in clothing styles. The concept of fashion is born and soon becomes a powerful force. 

At times men's shirts are embroidered, or has frills and/or lace at the neck and cuffs. As we reach the end of the 19th century an ordinary shirt is described as "of cotton, with linen bosom, wristbands and cuffs prepared for stiffening with starch, the collar and wristbands being usually separate and adjustable". 


Colored shirts begin to appear in the early 19th century. 


But, up until the 20th century these are considered casual wear for lower class workers. It’s unthinkable for a gentleman to wear a sky-blue shirt in 1860, but by 1920 it has become standard and is a normal event in 1980. 


Today the shirt is often worn alone. It can be worn loose or tucked in, worn under a sweater or jacket. Its fit and style is increasingly important. As dress codes have lightened up, the visibility and importance of the shirt has grown.


The Shirt has gone through several mayor transformations.


In the 15th century the shirt, originally an undergarment, becomes partly visible. Two centuries later men's shirts are allowed to show, with much the same erotic importance as visible underwear today. In the 18th century, men "rely on the long tails of shirts to serve the function of drawers” and men who don’t wear a shirt to bed are considered indecent.


To show yourself with no more than a shirt on your upper body is obscene in some circles until the beginning of the 20th century. But in the 1920’s it becomes socially acceptable to take off your jacket indoors, as long as you have a vest on and if it is at work. 


The visible changes reflect an invisible change of attitudes and ideals. 


Apart from more obvious changes in fit and details, our shirt has transformed from an inner, hidden garment, to one that is partly visible, and then to one that is seen by everyone. Is this a sign of openness? But an inner garment isn’t there only to hide our body’s private parts. What did this garment represent originally? A psychic layer between the innermost Self and the outer persona? The deeper dimension of the Soul that has been lost?


Have our lives become one-dimensional and devoid of mystery?



Are you interested in conscious clothing and the future of clothes?

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