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). A shirt can also be worn with a necktie under the shirt collar.
The world’s oldest preserved garment, discovered by Flinders Petrie, is a “highly sophisticated” linen shirt from a First Dynasty Egyptian tomb at Tarkan, dated to c. 3000 BC.
In the Middle Ages, it was a plain, undyed garment worn next to the skin and under regular garments. In medieval artworks, the shirt is only visible (uncovered) on humble characters, such as shepherds, prisoners, and penitents.
In the Middle Ages one could choose between fixed or detachable collar. The garment was often made out of linen and some times silk.
In the 17th century, men’s shirts were allowed to show, with much the same erotic import as visible underwear today.
In the 18th century, instead of underpants, men “relied on the long tails of shirts … to serve the function of drawers. 18th-century costume historian Joseph Strutt believed that men who did not wear shirts to bed were indecent. Even as late as 1879, a visible shirt with nothing over it was considered improper.
The shirt sometimes had frills at the neck or cuffs. In the 16th century, men’s shirts often had embroidery, and sometimes frills or lace at the neck and cuffs and through the 18th-century long neck frills, or jabots, were fashionable. Coloured shirts began to appear in the early nineteenth century, as can be seen in the paintings of George Caleb Bingham. They were considered casual wear, for lower-class workers only, until the 20th century. For a gentleman, “to wear a sky-blue shirt was unthinkable in 1860 but had become standard by 1920 and, in 1980, constituted the most commonplace event.
Shirts that opened all the way down the front were unknown before 1871, when Brown, Davis & Co. of Aldermanbury registered the first “coat style” of shirt. Striped shirts became fashionable in the late 19th century, but some viewed them with the suspicion that the color was hiding dirt.
European and American women began wearing shirts in 1860, when the Garibaldi shirt, a red shirt as worn by the freedom fighters under Giuseppe Garibaldi, was popularized by Empress Eugénie of France. At the end of the 19th century, the Century Dictionary described an ordinary shirt as “of cotton, with linen bosom, wristbands and cuffs prepared for stiffening with starch, the collar and wristbands being usually separate and adjustable”.
The first documented appearance of the expression “To give the shirt off one’s back”, happened in 1771 as an idiom that indicates extreme desperation or generosity and is still in common usage. In 1827 Hannah Montague, a housewife in upstate New York, invents the detachable collar. Tired of constantly washing her husband’s entire shirt when only the collar needed it, she cut off his collars and devised a way of attaching them to the neckband after washing. It wasn’t until the 1930s that collar stays became popular, although these early accessories resembled tie clips more than the small collar stiffeners available today. They connected the collar points to the necktie, keeping them in place.
A dress shirt is a garment with a collar and a full-length opening at the front, which is fastened using buttons or shirt studs. In British English, “dress shirt” (“formal shirt” or “tuxedo shirt” in American English) means specifically the more formal evening garment worn with black- or white-tie. Some of these formal shirts have stiff fronts and detachable collars attached with collar studs.
A T-shirt, or tee shirt, is a style of fabric shirt named after the T shape of its body and sleeves. Traditionally, it has short sleeves and a round neckline, known as a crew neck, which lacks a collar. T-shirts are generally made of a stretchy, light and inexpensive fabric and are easy to clean.
A sweatshirt is fashioned out of a thick, usually cotton jersey material. Sweatshirts are also almost exclusively casual attire and hence not as dressy as some sweaters. Sweatshirts may or may not have a hood. A sweatshirt with a hood is now usually referred to as a hoodie, although more formal media still use the term “hooded sweatshirt”.
A polo shirt is a form of shirt with a collar, a placket neckline with two or three buttons, and an optional pocket. Polo shirts are usually short sleeved; they were used by polo players originally in India in 1859 and in Great Britain during the 1920s.
A nightshirt is a garment intended for wear while sleeping, often with a nightcap. It is longer than most regular shirts, reaching down below the knees, leaving some of the legs uncovered. It is often referred to as a nightgown for men, but nowadays, nightshirts are an optional sleepwear for women too.