More Shirts!

This summer at the Valentine, we began the long and labor-intensive process of inventorying the Costume and Textiles Collection. My fellow intern and I were assigned ‘men’s shirts’ as our starting point, beginning with the earliest dated pieces and moving forward through the decades. It seemed fitting to all involved to start the audit with such a basic component of men’s dress.

The shirt has, at least since the Middle Ages, been a fundamental part of everyday dress, but its role in the everyday has seen changes. Before the 1800s, the shirt was synonymous with underclothes. It was cut long and loose, serving the purpose of both the modern undershirt and underpants.



Early 19th century, Gift of Mrs. Valentine Nesbit

The extra length and deep front opening identify this garment as a men’s nightshirt, but the silhouette, materials, and volume are similar to men’s shirts for daywear during the same period. This example from the Valentine’s collection was worn by Virginia Governor, James Patton Preston (1774-1843).


During the time, laundering clothes was a long, expensive process, taking days from start to finish. Because of this, it was common for the working-class man to wear the same shirt for days or weeks on end. Highly visible and susceptible to showing and attracting dirt, collars and ruffles at the cuff were only worn by those who could afford the expense of keeping them clean.

V.74.420.03a William Byrd, II 

William L. Sheppard c. 1893, Gift of City of Richmond

Founder of the city of Richmond, William Byrd, II (1674-1744) was a wealthy planter and member of the British colonial gentry who demonstrated his wealth and sophistication through the display of luxury items including clean white linen shirts with full sleeves peeking from under his coat and a long cravat.


Clean and bright linen communicated wealth, but these visible elements of the shirt were only a small part of an elaborate system of masculine display that included the use of sumptuous fabrics, evolving silhouettes, and embroidered embellishments.



Court Costume worn by General Lewis Littlepage to attend the Russian Court, 1787, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Holladay II

When it was worn by Virginia native, General Lewis Littlepage (1762-1802), advisor and diplomat to the court of King Stanislaus Augustus II of Poland, the elaborate embellishments and sumptuous fabrics used in this court suit communicated sophistication and formality in menswear.


Moving towards the 19th century, however, men’s clothing became increasingly simple. The colorful fabrics fell away, embroidery was relegated to the waistcoat, and the shirt gradually progressed from underwear to a fundamental component of men’s fashion.

In the early 1800s, Beau Brummell (1778-1840), the middle class son of an aspiring politician, became an icon, establishing the par for men’s dress in Regency England. His clothes attempted to embody “simple perfection of line that took attention and know-how, but did not, per se, require wealth.”


The shirt of Brummell’s time was characterized by a high collar and accessorized with a long, linen cravat wrapped about the neck, giving the wearer a look now associated with the Dandy.

James Armistead Lafayette
circa 1824
John B. Martin
Oil on canvas
OM.23  – See more at:

When this portrait of James Armistead Lafayette (1748-1830) was painted, the formerly enslaved Virginian and American Revolutionary spy under the French General Marquis de Lafayette was a successful farmer living in New Kent County. In this portrait, Lafayette proclaims his taste and sophistication by adopting the fashion for refined and understated menswear that Beau Brummel made famous.


Prior to Brummell, the term dandy was synonymous with the literary rake, who nabbed his neighbor’s wives and cuckolded husbands. The Brummellian Dandy was one of self-presentation, his focus on fashion rather than other men’s wives. Dandies were said to have changed their outfit two or three times a day, meaning gentlemen of the mid-19th century owned many more shirts which were laundered and starched more often than before 1800.

A primary focus of men’s fashion as the 19th century progressed, the shirt evolved in the realms of both day and evening wear. The shirt of evening dress in particular changed quickly: jabots were in style until around mid-century; cufflinks rose in popularity in the 1840s; the hem, once straight, became curved during the 1850s, a style that remains today. Collars also shrank during the 1850s-60s, from cheek-level to just below the jawline.


Ambrotype of Allan Talbott, 1859, displaying new shirt collar style, shrunk to below the jawline.

Color was utilized for day and evening wear by 1880. Flannel shirts rose in popularity before the turn of the century.



1860s, Gift of Miss Katherine Scott

This brown and white gingham shirt belonged to Lieutenant George William Hobson of Virginia. General Hobson was killed in battle during the Civil War and this shirt was returned to his family from the field. The natural tones of the gingham are an early example of the use of color in men’s daywear shirts.

The cummerbund rivaled waistcoats in the evening, revealing the full front of the shirt. It was also during this time that the ‘coat-shirt’ was introduced, closely resembling the modern button front shirt. Most shirts prior to this had been slipped over the head and closed with one to three studs in front or, alternately, secured in back. Further anticipating the modern-day dress shirt, at the turn of the 20th century, soft-fronted shirts were seen amongst the starkly starched bib-fronts that imposed a last gasp of Brummellian rigor on this men’s wardrobe staple.

Carley Winiesdorffer is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in art history. She plans to continue her education and pursue a Master’s degree in museum studies.