The 1920s war on women’s fashion was over the length of dresses, and for the men it was on the softness of shirts. Well not shirts by themselves, but instead the collars on shirts. For the past few decades, dress shirts and collars were starched stiff so that no wrinkle would ever make a man look sloppy. They contributed to the regal or stuffy air of a proper gentlemen in the Victorian age. 1920s mens shirts were a rebellion against both plain and rigid clothing.
When men were in World War 1 they were issued soft shirts with attached collars. For the most part white collars had been sold separately since the 1830s. Detachable collars saved on laundering since they were the part that needed frequent cleaning and replacement. These new softer shirts and collars were a drastic change from pre-war life. Men became used to the comfort and ease of soft shirts and were reluctant to change back. The conservative men did not take the change well. They fought in the media, in club rooms, at social gatherings, in colleges, and court rooms to keep the stiff collar in a man’s wardrobe. The war over stiff and soft collars was strongest in Britain, where they thought Americans were the cause of the soft collar craze and everything else casual about menswear. Both countries were divided over this hot fashion issue.
In the early ’20s, the stuffy detachable collar was still the norm. They were always white, always detached, and quite tall (up to 3 inches). The round edge club collar was the most fashionable from the preceding decade. Fans of Boardwalk Empire will recognize Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, who is almost always wearing one. The pointed collar gained favor after 1923. The collar was still tall and the points longer than today’s dress shirt. Some soft point collars came in the button-down style.
The pointed collar shirt remained popular for the rest of the 1920s, although other versions such as the spread collar had their famous moments, too. The popularity of the wide Windsor knot tie required collars to have wide openings, hence the introduction of the spread collar in both round and point styles.
By the mid 1920s, men’s collars were now mostly attached and not all white. First, shirt cuffs started to be made of the same material as the shirt, and later the collars matched, too. The look of a striped shirt and white cuffs and collars was the most common throughout the twenties. The all one color shirt was seen in casual day shirts but was too informal for men’s dress shirts until the late ’20s.
The casualness of soft, colorful, day shirts contributed to a popular working class look- the unbuttoned collar! A summer time style, shirts and collars were unbuttoned and worn without ties. The points flapped over the suit lapels, vest or a shirt alone. These wide collar shirts were called Danton or Byrons. The Americans loved this style. Collage kids copied it, too — even the rich preppy kids — whose fathers strongly disproved.
The Dress Shirt
Collar type controversies aside, men’s shirts experienced an explosion of color. Let’s start with dress shirts. Previously dress shirts were white, white and more white. White shirts went with every suit and tie. In the 1910s, the striped shirt, such as blue and white vertical stripes, was very popular in the summer months. The trend for stripes continued into the 1920s where various thickness of stripes were mixed with not just one color but multiple colors of stripes. Blue, green and yellow could be seen on one shirt or pink, yellow and green on another. For dress shirts, the stripes were nearly always against a white background so as to complement whatever suit men chose to wear. Besides stripes, Chevoit checks, light plaids, and even polka dots had their trendy moments. Solid color dress shirts were acceptable towards the late ’20s. Greens and blues were the favorites, although pastel colors like peach, pink, purple, and orange were seen on trendy dressers.
The shirt cuffs were almost always French cuffs, also called double cuffs. The cuff folded back onto itself and attached together with a snazzy cuff link. Very fashionable gentlemen also wore a collar bar or collar pin that coordinated with their cuff links. Collar bars held soft white collars in place by clipping to the collar on each side. Collar pins, common in the late ’20s, pinned the collar in place through the eyelet holes in the shirt collar. The tab collar, also common, did the same trick but without the need for bars and pins. The necktie was worn over the collar bar/pin/tab. Read this good article on collar pins for more information.
Fabrics were mostly cottons or linen in summer. Silk was very popular in the 1910s until the cost of silk import drove the prices too high for the common man in 1920. Thicker, coarser weaves such as broadcloth were favored in the early years with the softer Oxfords and mercerized cotton leading the later years. Soft material that was primarily used for men’s underwear and night shirts became a welcome fabric in men’s dress and casual shirts, too.
The Great Gatsby had a vast collection of soft colorful shirts:
“He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily “They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”
While most men wore dress shirts for 90% of their life, the working class, the young men, and the weekend sportsmen wore casual shirts which were long sleeved and collared just like dress shirts. The sport shirt was usually a single color, in a heavier durable fabric such as twill, wool, or flannel for manual work and rugged sports (hunting, hiking, fishing, etc.).
The plaid flannel shirt was exceedingly common in winter. Women loved these comfortable shirts, too, and they quickly became part of their sporty wardrobe as well.
Most sport shirts also had one or two patch pockets on the chest. Dress shirts didn’t need them since they were covered up by vests, suspenders, and suit jackets. The casual shirt pockets, worn uncovered, was perfect for holding reading glasses, some spare change, and cigarettes.
In warm weather the Byron collar unbuttoned shirt also meant unbuttoning and rolling up sleeves, too. Oh the horrors of the casual male! It was the only way men could cool off in those hot long sleeves.
The short sleeve shirt was just starting to make an appearance in men’s sportswear. The polo shirt, a short sleeve knit shirt with longer shirt flaps in the back and three buttons up to the collar, was about as casual as you could get. The polo shirt was new to market and not yet ready for the masses to bare arms.
Buying 1920s Shirts and Collars
Finding good 1920s style shirts can sometimes be challenging. The classic vintage striped shirt with white collar comes in and out of fashion quickly. Last year they were in, this year they are out again. Here are some links to help you shop the maze:
1920s Men’s Shirts- My shopping page of 1920s style men’s shirts. I especially like French cuff, straight collar, striped, classic fit shirts from Paul Fredrick. The stock is always changing. Sometimes they have club collar shirts, too. New collar bars and pins can still be found as well.
1920s “Gatsby” Shirt- J. Peterman is one of the few retailers that has collarless shirts for sale. It’s a 1920s reproduction in a range of solids and stripes that change seasonally.
Feeling crafty? You can also learn how to turn a regular collared dress shirt into one ready for detachable collars.
Detachable Collars- The Gatsby shirt needs a detachable collar to go with it. For stiff club or wingtip collars, buy at Premier Clothing (order 1/2 size up for comfort) or BrooksBrothers. For softer collars (that you can starch to make stiffer), Gentleman’s Emporium carries a club collar. In the AU try BespokeCollars and in the UK Classic Wardrobe or Darcy Clothing (same brand as Premier.)