In this post I’ll take a closer look at one of the most classic wardrobe staples, the shirt. I will look briefly into its origin, why it is a classic garment and point to a few of the many ways it can be interpreted. I find the shirt a very fascinating garment and chose shirts as the main theme for my August sewing this year. I’ll get to that towards the end.
What constitutes a shirt?
A shirt is a cloth garment for the upper body (from the neck to the waist). Originally an undergarment worn exclusively by men, it has become, in American English, a catch-all term for a broad variety of upper-body garments and undergarments. In British English, a shirt is more specifically a garment with a collar, sleeves with cuffs, and a full vertical opening with buttons or snaps (North Americans would call that a “dress shirt”, a specific type of collared shirt).
Wikipedia read 14.09.20
I’m unsure if everyone would agree with the distinctions made here, but I think most would agree that the shirt always has at least some structure, usually at the collar and sometimes at the cuffs. It has button closure and is mostly made in crisp fabrics like linen and cotton, but can be made in fluid fabrics such as silk and viscose, too. Many makers consider the shirt to be an involved, satisfying make, myself included.
From underwear to fashionable must-have
When did the shirt become the reliable wardrobe staple it is today? A plain, white shirt has become a sartorial must, and it is listed among the very few garments that everyone must have in their wardrobe. This is of course not really true, but nevertheless it emphasizes the importance of the shirt. Let’s take a quick peek into its humble beginnings:
Originally the white linen shirt was worn as an undergarment to protect expensive coats and waistcoats from sweat in the 17th century. Soon it became an important garment in its own right, and undoubtedly gained some of its flair from being exclusively worn by wealthy men who were the only ones that could afford maintaining the wash and wear of a white shirt. It signaled that you could afford to not do manual labour, or only “white collar” work. Women started wearing menswear inspired shirts around 1900. Later on, the white shirt became very popular and accessible to a much broader part of society, but until this day some people feel that a white shirt has no place in their wardrobe because it sends wrong signals about who they are. To me, the main appeal of a white shirt has to do with the crisp fabric, the structure and how easy it is to combine with other garments.
The blue shirt is probably even more commonly accepted and widely worn by both men and women in many different walks of life. Blue was the color worn by working people towards the end of the 19th century and beyond in many parts of the world. The working class aestethic (as in chore jackets, trousers and shirts) is still very popular today. To many it’s just fashion, but you don’t have to dig deep to understand how strong ties there are between the color blue and highly esteemed values as honesty, reliability, trust, pride and valued skills needed to make society go round. No wonder the blue shirt has a lot of devoted fans. Alyson Walsh of That’s Not My Age even has a name for it, “the LBS, or the Lovely Blue Shirt”. She argues that a blue shirt can take you literally everywhere, and I agree, it probably is more versatile than a white shirt.
Making a shirt requires some skill: You need to choose a suitable fabric (for a classic shirt that means a crisp cotton or linen), you have to interface the collar and cuffs properly and with the right material, you need to know how to insert sleeves and make button holes, and some topstitching skills are usually required, too. Other useful techniques are sewing flat felled seams or french seams for a neat finish. Every step of the shirt making process requires precision for a good result.
Let’s have a look at some of the ways the shirt can be interpreted into modern day garments. Finding a good shirt pattern is crucial. When you have invested in tweaking the size and fit to your liking you basically have a blank slate for any kind of alteration or pattern hacking, see below for a few suggestions:
- Collar: Leave off the top collar | wider or narrower | contrast fabric
- Sleeves: Add width | gathering at the sleeve head | shorten
- Cuffs: Wider or narrower | add ruffles | contrast button holes
- Yoke: Contrast fabric | pattern direction | add piping
- Back: Add or remove pleats | gathering | darts
- Front: Pocket placement | concealed button placket | add a zipper
Many sewists like to give their garments a personal touch, myself included, and some do it with the greatest success, too! Susanna Wiberg of Frk. Wiberg AB has made numerous versions of one of my absolute favorite patterns, the Mönsterfabriken Agnes shirt. I find it impossible to pick a favorite because the sheer volume and variety is probably most inspiring of all. I like that she keeps the overall integrity of the shirt, as in no crazy interpretations, but she makes alterations to the length and width of the bodice and the sleeves, resulting in anything from a cropped shirt (shaket?) to a sleeveless shirtdress. I love her sleeveless summer version and want to make one for myself next season, and I love the occasional bold pattern and the gorgeous linen shirts, too. You don’t have to take my word for it, have a look and you’ll see what I mean.
The August shirt making project
My August shirt making project had several objectives. First of all I wanted to hone my skills and gain experience. I wanted to focus more on the process and at the same time end up with something wearable. Second, I have accumulated a lot of patterns and fabric that I never seemed to have time to use, and I wanted to remedy that. Finally, I wanted to only add pieces that would earn their place in my wardrobe and get worn regularly. I am, as so many others, concerned with my consumption and I try to change a few unfortunate habits. In total I made seven new garments for this project, and I didn’t buy a single thing. No thread, no notions, no fabric or patterns. It made it very clear that I have more than enough to keep me going for a while without shopping anything new.
I have a couple of favorite patterns I have made several times, such as the Agnes shirt and the Thread Theory Fairfield shirt for men. All the projects are previously documented on the blog: I cut out three shirts and sewed them simultaneously (bottom row). It was surprisingly efficient and most of all a lot of fun. The shirts are already in hight rotation in my work wardrobe. Next, I made a short sleeved Morningside shirt (middle and middle right) because I haven’t made many popover shirts, and I liked the hidden placket and that there are no visible topstitching. I have worn it several times. Then I made the Indira shirtdress (middle left and top right), a quick and easy make. It functions as a dress and a duster and is really versatile. Finally I made the Box shirt in linen as a PJ shirt with matching bottoms. (Top middle and left). I sleep in it all the time and lounge in it whenever I can.
I have learned so much from doing this, and I would definitely do it again! Having an overarching theme provided focus and generated more ideas than I’ve had in a very long time. I have plans for themes lasting way into next year, but I will not give any promises – this is something I do as long as I feel that it is helpful for me, and when it doesn’t I will stop, simple as that. Are you a tiny bit curious about what I’m working on this month? Well, since you asked –
20/21 sewing themes:
- August: Shirts
- September: Outerwear
- October: Trousers
- November: Loungewear
- December: The black dress
- January: Knits
- February: Jeans
- March: Basics
- April: Blouses and skirts
- May: Summer dresses
- June: Sleeveless tops and shorts
- July: Swimwear
Will I ever complete the list? Only time will tell (and I’m allowed to substitute themes at will, too).
Thank you for your patience if you made it all the way down here! Please let me know what you think about shirts in general, this post in particular and the idea of having sewing themes – anyone else doing this?
Love to know: https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-types-styles/shirt
Urban dictionary: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=blue%20collar