Or not. But authors, if your Regency hero does take off his shirt, or, even more enjoyable, if your heroine chooses to help him, please be sure they take off a Regency-era shirt, not a modern one. It does so ruin the mood to have a present-day garment appear in a delicious Regency seduction.
What precisely are the salient features of a man’s shirt from the time of the Regency?
The very best shirts of the period were of lawn, a very fine, closely woven textile made from linen. Lawn was a smooth cloth which became very soft after several launderings, and was popular for evening wear. Shirts for more active pursuits were often made of cambric. Cambric was also typically made of linen, and was of a plain weave, though less closely woven than lawn. It was a soft but sturdy cloth with a smooth finish. By the last years of the Regency, both lawn and cambric shirts might also be woven of cotton. Regardless of the fiber from which they were made, men’s shirts during the Regency were always white. They were kept that way by regular washing, as advised by Beau Brummell.
The width of linen or cotton cloth woven in the early nineteenth century would be twenty to twenty-five inches as that was the width of looms of the time. The much wider cloth which is available today was not technically possible until much later in the century. During the Regency, fabrics were sold by the ell, which, in England, was about forty-five inches. It would take between five to six ells of cloth to make a man’s shirt, depending on the size of the shirt to be made.
The basic cut of a man’s shirt in the early nineteenth century remained very much the same as the cut of men’s shirts through most of the previous century. Shirts were cut entirely from rectangles of cloth, there was very little shaping of the finished garment. There was no need to do so, as shirts at this time were essentially an undergarment, not intended to be seen in public, with the exception of the collar and the cuffs. Wearing ease for the shirt was provided by the use of square gussets under the arms and gathering or pleating at the sleeve caps, cuffs and around the neckline. A simple slit opening from the neckline down the front of the shirt, perhaps nine to twelve inches deep, allowed the shirt to be pulled on and off over the head.
A Regency man’s shirt was loose-fitting through the body, and long, usually to mid-thigh, as many men wore no other undergarments. The frilled cuffs of the eighteenth-century shirts were gone, as they were considered old fashioned in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Cuffs were now plain bands, approximately three inches wide, usually with worked buttonholes for buttons or studs. Though cuffs were now plain, dress shirts meant for evening wear might still have a ruffle down the front of the chest. The collar, which had been a simple band through most of the eighteenth century, became much deeper and acquired the points which were starched to stand above the elegantly-tied cravat. The neckline slit, which had previously been closed by a simple tie, was now more commonly secured by three, or sometimes four, buttons.
A good set of photographs of a man’s shirt made in 1807 can be seen in the Nelson section of the National Maritime Museum web site. Though this shirt was made a few years before the start of the Regency, it is an excellent exemplar of a man’s shirt from the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
Men’s shirts of the Regency years were moving toward the design of today’s mens dress shirts, but they were still lacking some distinctive features of the modern garment. They did have plain cuffs and a conspicuous collar band. But they did not open completely down the front. In the days when all garments were sewn by hand, it would not have been efficient to create the placket and the many buttonholes which are a standard feature of men’s dress shirts of today, particularly since they would never have been seen. That style of shirt was not introduced until the latter years of the nineteenth century and did not become prevalent until the early twentieth century. At that time, men’s fashion exposed a greater expanse of the shirtfront to view. In addition, the sewing machine was in common use, facilitating the added labor necessary to create the shirtfront placket.
The next time a man disrobes, or is disrobed, in the Regency novel you are reading, you will know if the author is knowledgeable about male clothing of the era. If he has ruffles on his cuffs, or if he does not take his shirt off over his head, then it is clear he is wearing a garmemt from an earlier or later time, not the Regency.