A man in a white dress shirt could time travel to 1914 and no one would look at him askance.
Women’s fashions change dramatically over the course of time, but look at most male fashion designers. Most of them are still wearing the same white dress shirt that their great-grandfather could have worn.
The New York Times reports the plain white dress shirt has remained relatively unchanged since the last half of the 19th century. However, the paper adds, the history of the shirt is anything but plain.
The shirt traces its threads back to the 19th century when it was a sign of wealth and class. Only a rich guy could afford to have shirts washed frequently and own enough of them to wear.
Hence we get the term “white collar” as it applies to wealth and social status.
According to the Times, some white-collar Victorian working men resented clerical workers for wearing white dress shirts — calling them “white-collar stiffs.”
The collas themselves were symbolic.
The Times reports starched high rigid collars distinguished the elite from clerks. The latter needed low collars so they could look down and do their work. Men with stiff, high collars needn’t look down.
According to the paper, that’s where we get the expression “looking down one’s nose.” That’s because rich men couldn’t move their heads easily.
Those Oscar Wilde types who wanted to dress with flair were derided for not being masculine. (Yeah, like anyone could accuse Oscar of not being a man’s man.) Such flamboyance was a sign that man was not be trusted in business and was likely a dipsomaniac or bacchanate.
According to the Times, the shirt entered the mainstream in the 20th century as more men entered white-collar professions and the price of the shirts fell.
It was traditional for men, by the way, to wear T-shirts under their white shirts. That changed in 1934 when Clark Gable took off his shirt in “It Happened One Night” and revealed he wasn’t wearing an undershirt.