Keep your shirt on!

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.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Apparel & Grooming and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Keep your shirt on!

  1. Diane Spigonardo says:

    Loved your intake of information of my favorite era the Regency! Thank you!

  2. Buzzy says:

    I am often amused by contemporary portrayals of mens wear in period costume drama, as their shirts are always too short and there is never any sign of all that extra fabric stuffed into their breeches. An added point (at least from what I’ve read) is that a reason for the length is that gentlemen wore their shirts as nightwear, the specially purposed nightshirt not coming into fashion until later in century. (Unless they were sharing a room with another gentleman or (horror!) a lady to whom they were not married, thrown together by some romantic circumstance, in which case they kept their breeches on.)

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Purpose-made nightshirts were worn by men from at least the fifteenth century, so I would find the reference which indicated that they were not in use until the nineteenth century rather suspect.

      In fact, mens’ shirts for daytime wear from the eighteenth century, right through the Regency had long tails since many of them wore no other undergarments. Thus, the shirts of that era functioned as a combination of undershirt and drawers for many men. The only part of the shirt which was visible in public was the collar and the cuffs. The rest of the garment protected their much more expensive outer garments from perspiration, etc. and protected their skin from fabrics which were often stiff and could be quite scratchy.

      Nightshirts were designed to be much looser that a day shirt, and therefore, were more comfortable to sleep in. Nightshirts were also much longer, falling to below the knee. That was for warmth as well as modesty. Few men would have chosen to sleep in their daywear shirt, if they had a choice.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Buzzy says:

    The references did not say they did not exist, but that they were not in common use, and that “most” men did not own such garments. The very few examples of and references to nightshirt wearing I’ve come across referred to very highly placed men – kings, peers and generals. Sites like this: http://www.hextol.co.uk/history.htm are pretty specific that nightshirts were fancy items for well-off gentlemen, not commonplace wear. So, yes, absolutely, the nightshirt existed, but a lot of men who could afford proper shirts wouldn’t have owned them. At least that’s how I read the sources. If you have better sources, I’d be very happy to see them.

    At the moment I can’t put my hands on the reference that said those men wore their shirts at night as well.

  4. Kathryn Kane says:

    Now we enter the realm of time and semantics, as your source is correct, sort of. For a good chunk of the eighteenth century, a “day-wear” shirt was indeed the province of gentlemen, certainly in England. Most lower class and working Englishmen wore a garment usually referred to as a smock, though it was often called a chemise on the Continent. It was made of coarser fabric and had fewer seams, so it was much less fitted, and was gathered at the neck and wrists. This was the garment they wore closest to their bodies, under their outer clothes. And these men did often sleep in this same garment, not owning a purpose-made sleeping garment, or even thinking it was necessary. Sadly for their bedfellows, many of them also did not consider regular laundering a necessity, either. And, for most of the eighteenth century, this group of men made up the majority of the population of Britain.

    However, by the Regency, the English middle class was expanding and the majority of the men in that growing group would have owned shirts which they wore during the day, and purpose-made nightshirts for sleeping. Unless, of course, they came home after a long night’s carousing and just crashed in the clothes they had on. Working men who lived in rural areas, such as farmers and laborers, and the very poor, rural or urban, mostly still wore smocks and owned neither shirts nor nightshirts. But any man who was making any claim to respectability would have owned at least one or two nightshirts, would have worn them and had them laundered regularly, since clean linen, for either day or night wear, had been made obligatory for all gentlemen, or those who aspired to be, by Beau Brummell and his circle.

    And just to add to the confusion, most gentlemen also owned one or more “nightgowns,” sometimes called robes de chambre. But these garments were more comparable to today’s dressing gowns or bathrobes and were often made en suite with matching night cap and slippers. These “nightgowns” were of richer fabrics, often lined, and would have been worn over a nightshirt, usually for warmth, when not in bed. They would seldom, if ever, have been worn while sleeping.

    Recently, I read the results of a survey which indicated that over 30% of men today sleep in the buff. That percentage was probably much lower during Regency times, despite the many seduction and/or bedroom scenes to be found in most modern novels with a Regency setting. There was no central heating, many bedchambers did not have fires at all, and even if they did, the fire would not have been kept burning during the night. Despite the many references to silk or satin sheets in these same novels, the majority of bed sheets during the Regency were made of linen. Initially stiff and scratchy, they would have softened with repeated washings, but they did not hold a lot of warmth. In addition, most men of that time would have been horrified at the idea of sleeping without some kind of garment to cover them.

    I hope that helps to clarify my comments above. I cannot give you specific published references, as I have picked this knowledge up over the course of many years, not only from published sources, but also from the odd reference here and there in letters and journals. I should note, however, that the majority of my primary source documents were either American or English and from what I understand, sleepwear for men on the Continent was not necessarily the same.

    Regards,

    Kat

  5. Kirby says:

    Where have you got your research from may I ask? I am currently looking into Regency attire, particularly shirts for men for a university project.
    Thanks
    Kirby 🙂

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Sadly, way too many years working as a museum and historic house curator, as well as making the odd period garment here and there, including several C18 men’s shirts.

      However, for your needs, probably the definitive authority, even today, on period costume, is Norah Waugh. In particular, you will want to get hold of a copy of her book, The Cut of Men’s Clothes: 1600-1900. The book includes many illustrations of period costume, but more importantly, scaled patterns for many of the garments, as well as how to cut and construct them, along with detailed notes on each garment.

      The book is out-of-print and was never cheap, so you will probably want to get a copy from your university library. If they do not have it in their collection, then their inter-library loan department should be able to get a copy for you. Otherwise, you can try to find a copy for sale in a used bookstore or online. That will be rather unlikely, the book is very hard to find and the few copies available are extremely pricey.

      Norah Waugh is also the author of a couple of other definitive books on historic clothing:
      The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930
      Corsets and Crinolines

      Another author who’s work I found helpful in college is Margot Lister. The two books you may want to seek out are:
      Costumes: An Illustrated Survey from Ancient Times to the Twentieth Century
      Costumes of Everyday Life: An Illustrated History of Working Clothes from 900-1910

      Lister was a costume designer for theatre and film, and these books consist primarily of line drawings of male and female figures from the periods under discussion, dressed appropriately, with a short summary of the clothing and accessories. She was meticulous in her research, and her drawings are invaluable for providing an overview of the silhouette of each period and how the garments were worn. Again, not cheap, but not as expensive as Waugh’s books. You may be able to find used copies online or at a used bookstore, or, your library’s inter-library loan department can get copies for you.

      If you want to add even more detail to your research project, you might want to take some time investigating the history of the textiles from which these garments were made. By the Regency, those with money often had their shirts made from the “new” textile, cotton, while the more traditional or less affluent were still wearing linen shirts. Both of those textiles are plant-based, but they are produced somewhat differently, and they also wear differently, which might add an interesting dimension to your work. There are a number of books on textile history which may be of use. A good start might be chatting up the reference librarian in your university library. They should be able to direct you to some useful sources.

      Good luck with your research!

      Kat

  6. A lovely informative post. Thank you for taking the time to share. Once upon a time, I worked as a gentleman’s bespoke tailor and it is interesting how few things change in sewing over the era’s. Although I am happy to say I’ve never had to make hand sewn buttons, buttonholes yes, but not buttons. I know my mum’s made a few, and it is a nice cheap way of getting matching buttons.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you enjoyed the post. When it comes to sewing and tailoring, though the styles change frequently, the underlying construction techniques have not really changed that much. I applaud your mum. I have made a few hand-sewn buttons in my time, too. Though they are very time-consuming to make, they do make a nice finishing touch to a period garment.

      In some cases, I did take short-cuts and made covered buttons of the same fabric to get a unified look. Fabric-covered buttons were in use, at least by the seventeenth century, if not earlier, but they, too, were very labor-intensive to make. I admit that I cheated a bit, and used modern covered button kits to get the job done faster.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I’ve always liked fabric covered buttons. I make clothes for my daughters and made my eldest a little coat with hearts and stars and made buttons with the same fabric so there is a little heart centred on each button. I’m in the middle of doing a coat with bunches of roses on, and I am still wondering what to do for the buttons. I wonder what they would have used as a base to cover in the regency period. I guess wood would be easy and cheap, but would make a much larger button. I’ve even covered other buttons when pressed for match! Thanks for taking the time to reply.

  7. Kathryn Kane says:

    You are right about wood as a base for covered buttons in the Regency. Most of the buttons were rather large, but since that was the fashion at the time, it worked out just fine.

    About the buttons for the coat for your daughter, with the bunches of roses, could you find buttons with roses on them? I am guessing you live in the UK, and I live in the US, but here, in some of the fabric shops, they have buttons in the shape of roses, or plastic ones, with pictures of roses on them. Or, if you don’t want the buttons to fight with the flowers, maybe buttons in the shape of leaves? They would compliment the floral theme without clashing. There are a couple of places here that sell buttons like that, in different sizes. You might be able to find something you like online, if your local shops don’t have what you want.

    Good Luck with the coat!

    Regards,

    Kat

  8. Pingback: (Un)Dressing the Regency Swell | Obstinate Headstrong Girl ~ author Renée Reynolds

  9. I know I’m late to the game here but had to say something. You said, “The much wider cloth which is available today was not technically possible until much later in the century.” However, that isn’t true. Even as far back as the Anglo-Saxon period there were looms that could produce fabric many feet wide, so the technology was there. Perhaps that width was just the fashion in the Regency period?
    http://www.geocities.ws/ladymairghread/clothwidth.htm
    http://suffolkinstitute.pdfsrv.co.uk/customers/Suffolk%20Institute/2014/01/10/Volume%20XXXIX%20Part%203%20(1999)_Anglo-Saxon%20loom%20from%20Pakenham%20Suffolk%20S%20J%20Plunkett_273%20to%20298.pdf

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The information which you provided is all for looms from the medieval period or earlier. Those were all hand-looms. By the Regency, quite a lot of cloth was woven by machines, and due to power and other limitations of the machines, the loom beds were seldom wider than 30 inches. Most were closer to 22 inches. Hand-woven cloth could be woven in wider widths, but it was extremely expensive and was only used by the most affluent. I hope that helps to clarify.

      Regards,

      Kat

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