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Basic Care Instructions #17: The Shirt As Social Semaphore

  

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BASIC CARE INSTRUCTIONS   #17: The Shirt As Social Semaphore*

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This is the 17th in a series of articles on domestic items, and materials most often seen in antiques and vintage textiles, including but not limited to housewares and clothing. I hope this care information is helpful to you.
You may well know a lot more about the care of domestic items than I can tell you here, but it's nice to have all this information in one place. At the risk of trying your patience, I go into considerable detail.

See our issue BASIC CARE INSTRUCTIONS #1 for information on how to read care labels you may find on vintage fabrics (and you should follow them if you do find them!). All previous articles in the series can be found in our library and in the magazine archives.  

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THE SHIRT AS SOCIAL SEMAPHORE

 

Semaphore Flag Square Yellow and Blue; How to say "Communicate with me!" in nine languages.

 

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No matter what century or language, humans have very elaborate communication rituals. Every circumstance, occasion, and personal statement, is accompanied by a different sets of rules and behavioral expectations. A flag is defined as a piece of cloth attached to a pole and used as a signal, meaning as a sign to convey a fact, condition, quality, idea, information, command, desire, or gesture. Substitute 'human' for 'pole' and you have the definition for 'clothing'. 

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Harry Whittier Frees Photograph, Labor Union Puppies "We Want More Bones, More Meat".

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When it comes to personal communication through clothing, for all intents and purposes, the shirt has replaced the functions of the hat.  The hat remains as a head protector, and as a clear cultural, group, and activity signaler.  As personal expression, however, it met with a totally unanticipated demise in the 20th Century. The shirt, on the other hand, actively evolved and endured through the ages, developing into a sophisticated and complex status signalling system. 

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Ancien Costume Champignons Mushrooms 1906.

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The shirt has conveniently separated signalling parts yet remains essentially a billboard; it's worn across the largest visible portion of the body, the chest.  The shirt is now the pivotal piece of the Western World dress code, as important and essential to the human dress code as vowels are to the English alphabet.  The shirt made its' earliest appearance as First Dynasty Egyptian tomb sleepwear.

Wikipedia states that the world's oldest preserved garment, discovered by Flinders Petrie, is a "highly sophisticated" linen shirt from a First Dynasty Egyptian tomb at Tarkan, c. 3000 BC. This was the first wear-it-forever comfort shirt.

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Queen Nefertari in a sheer, pleated linen garment, Egypt, c. 1298–1235 BC.

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The Middle Ages or Medieval Period,  in European history, lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery.  By the Middle Ages, this garment had evolved into a kind of 'underwear', very much out of necessity. I won't discuss the bathing customs, or lack thereof at that time, but suffice to say, that situation is what made this usage so necessary and popular. 

A layer of fitted, undyed, plain fabric was worn next to the skin as a vital skin protection layer. It acted as a barrier, protecting the skin from whatever else was layered over it, and it was a lot easier to keep clean than metal armour ringlets.  In medieval artworks from the late middle ages, we only see it visible on the peasant classes, where it shows up uncovered on lowly, humble  shepherds, prisoners, and religious penitents. This was the period of the Black Death plague and other problems, and times were tough.

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Roman soldier 175 a.C. from a northern province (reenactment), photographed during a show of the Legio XV from Pram, Austria.

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The Renaissance was a period in European history from the 14th to the 17th century. It overlapped the end of the Middle Ages and is regarded as the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the shirt emerges decorated; rich men wore shirts with cuffs that were ornamented with very fine, very elaborate, very obvious lace. Collars got elaborations too.  

This started out as practicality; apparently nobody liked doing laundry. Cuffs and collars were made to be removable, and the same shirt could have a totally different appearance simply by changing the collar and cuffs (and wouldn't need washing and ironing that day either). Sleeves were large, elaborate, and appeared almost like flags in their size, shapes, and colors. Turned back cuffs made their first appearance, ostensibly to protect the shirt arms from fraying at the ends due to overworked hands and friction (from all that writing with quill pens and ink all over those leather desk tops).  When the turned back cuffs frayed, they were easy to repair,  replace, or change, without having to wear another shirt. All this to avoid doing laundry.

By the seventeenth century, shirts took on another connotation.  If a man's shirt was visible, this was assumed to be a deliberate sexual signal, with erotic connotations. 

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Luis Francisco de la Cerda, IX duque de Medinacelli, circa 1684, by Flemish painter Jacob Ferdinand Voet (1639 - 1689), at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

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In the eighteenth century, men were eschewing anything resembling underpants and boxer shorts, because they used the long shirt tails on their shirts instead. I am not making this up. As late as 1879, appearing in a shirt with nothing over it was considered highly improper due to the overt sexual overtones, and no decent man went to bed at night without wearing a fully covering shirt.

At this point, men's shirts were anything but plain, and they weren't just underwear.  They had ruffles, embroidery, frills, jabots, all sorts of different kinds of cuffs, and by 1860, colors. At first, colored shirts were considered lower-class casual wear, but that didn't last long, and by 1920, a sky-blue shirt was commonplace. Once color came in, it didn't take women long to start wearing shirts. In 1860, the Garibaldi shirt, a red shirt as worn by the freedom fighters under Giuseppe Garibaldi, was popularized by Empress Eugénie of France. That did it. American and European women started wearing shirts. This was the first recorded colored shirt as liberation statement / political alliance, firmly establishing colored shirts' political connotation. Today's T-Shirts emblazoned with vivid graphics are modern versions of this same 'thing'.

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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) wearing a frock coat with a chest pocket sporting a pocket square and a pinned cravat in a Ruche knot. Frock coats with any external pockets at all are a rarity.

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In 1827 Hannah Montague, a housewife in upstate New York, got tired washing and ironing her husband's shirts when she thought only the collar was dirty. So she cut off the collars, and promptly devised a way to reattach them to the neckbands after washing, thus reinventing the detachable collar.  Notice how many hundreds of years it took before somebody decided they had something else they would rather be doing with their time. 

George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876), a United States Army officer and cavalry commander, invented the flamboyant cavalry shirt made of blue wool with yellow piping and brass buttons; the shirt as 'uniform'.
 

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Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer in his field uniform 23 May 1865.

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At the end of the nineteenth 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".

Collar stays, incidentally, came along in the 1930's, and are still considered essential to keep shirt collar tip points in place, properly aligned with the necktie. 

Ties, a story unto themselves, also developed variations, from colored silk cravats in Victorian times, paisley neck bandanas for working class Civil War veterans, and modern bolo ties as formal dress wear. 

 

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Cravat-tying illustrations, engraved by George Cruikshank, with partial descriptive text, taken from "Neckclothitania or Tietania,.

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As I said, this is all an elaborate signaling system, and just like semaphore, it's perceived from a distance so you really don't want to send the wrong signal.   For example, modern women's halter tops, essentially a square of fabric thrown over the bust and tied only behind the neck leaving the rest bare, are semaphorically analogous to tying an apron with a string around the back of the neck and across the lower back holding it in place. They carry the connotation and signal of the working class being sexually available to the boss, as does any thong style. 

By the 20th century, men's shirts became available in hundreds of different shirt styles, fabrics, weaves, sleeve types, cuff and collar types, each combination making a different social statement. To convey life style allegiances, men's shirt styles were adopted from uniforms and worn on casual occasions. For example, Western shirts with distinct fringe, snaps, and v-shaped yokes, were adapted from shirts traditionally worn by cowboys as identification at rodeos. And the modern tee shirt with horizontal stripes on the sleeves is an adaptation of Rugby uniforms.

Today, men's dress shirts have several components, all of which add up to signaling different, highly specific social status statements, and which are accompanied by elaborate ritualistic unwritten 'dress code' rules for wearing.  

These unwritten rules vary not only by circumstance and occasion, but by class, religion, and country.  For example, wearing a tie is usually compulsory for most formal occasions, and when a tie is worn, usually the shirt's top button is fastened, so the ensemble of tie, human neck, and shirt, looks snug and thus neat.  But for most casual situations around the world, a tie is not worn.  This leaves the shirt naked, without a tie, and different countries have different ideas about what to do about that. Different countries have different customs about how to change this signal, about how to button, or unbutton, the solo-shirt-sans-tie.  
 

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A Regency style neckcloth tied in a bow on a starched Grafton collar..

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In the U.S. and the U.K., when a tie isn't worn, the shirt's top button is left open; it's never buttoned.  Unbuttoning two or more buttons  (buttoned at the third button) is usually reserved for casual work wear, with buttoning at the fourth button perceived as too casual.  Shirts are only worn entirely unbuttoned when assuming the role of a jacket over a tee shirt. On the other hand, in France, unbuttoning two buttons is relatively common, and public officials appear this way on television.

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President Magsaysay and his eventual successor, Vice-President Carlos P. García, at their Inauguration on 30 December 1953 in the Philippines. Both men are wearing the  barong tagalog, an embroidered formal shirt considered the national dress of the Philippines.

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There are many reasons why humans take shirts very seriously. Whether a woman's blouse or a man's dress shirt, a person's reputation can be made or ruined by what clothes are worn, far more than by how one behaves while wearing the clothing. And wearing proper and appropriate attire can grant forgiveness to rare exceptions; what comes to mind is the scene from the 1964 movie My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison,  and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle cheering Dover on at the races ("Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin' ass!"). 

Here are some words of advice from the definitive clothing book "Etiquette", published in 1922 by Emily Post  (1873–1960):

"The ordinary run of English clothes may not be especially good, but they are, on the other hand, never bad; whereas American freak clothes are distortions like the reflections seen in the convex and concave mirrors of the amusement parks." 

"If you would dress like a gentleman, you must do one of two things; either study the subject of a gentleman’s wardrobe until you are competent to pick out good suits from freaks and direct your misguided tailor, or, at least until your perceptions are trained, go to an English one. This latter method is the easiest, and, by all odds, the safest. It is not Anglomania but plain common sense to admit that, just as the Rue de la Paix in Paris is the fountainhead of fashions for women, Bond Street in London is the home of irreproachable clothes for men."

"The well-dressed man is always a paradox. He must look as though he gave his clothes no thought and as though literally they grew on him like a dog’s fur, and yet he must be perfectly groomed."

"If ever in doubt what to wear, the best rule is to err on the side of informality. Thus, if you are not sure whether to put on your dress suit or your Tuxedo, wear the latter." 

"The main thing is to dress appropriately. If you are going to play golf, wear golf clothes; if tennis, wear flannels. Do not wear a yachting cap ashore unless you are living on board a yacht."


--- Quotes from Etiquette, Chapter XXXIV,  The Clothes of a Gentleman, by Emily Post (1873–1960), 1922; http://www.bartleby.com/95/34.html, accessed 170512).
 

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Semaphore, indeed. All this makes me long for the days of relatively simple Morse code.

For more information, please see
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirt
and
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dress_shirt

 

 

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In short, have fun with your clothes and take care of them. After all, you're a "picture worth a thousand words"!

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Safety garb for women workers in Los Angeles, c. 1943, designed to prevent occupational accidents among female war workers. The uniform at the left, complete with the plastic "bra" on the right, will prevent future occupational accidents among feminine war workers. Los Angeles, California. Acme. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Identifier (NAID) 52288.

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* Semaphore (from the Greek sema, meaning sign, and phero, meaning to bear; altogether the sign-bearer) is the telegraphy system conveying information at a distance by means of visual signals, for example, with hand-held flags, rods, disks, paddles, or occasionally bare or gloved hands.  Telegraphy (from Greek: têle, "at a distance" and gráphein, "to write") is the long-distance transmission of textual or symbolic (as opposed to verbal or audio) messages without the physical exchange of an object bearing the message (so not like a letter). Thus semaphore is a method of telegraphy, whereas pigeon post is not. Telegraphy requires that the method used for encoding the message be known to both sender and receiver. Such methods are designed according to the limits of the signalling medium used. The use of smoke signals, beacons, reflected light signals, billboards, and flag semaphore signals are early examples. The word "telegraph" was first coined by the French inventor of the Semaphore line, Claude Chappe, who also coined the word "semaphore".

For more information, see 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telegraphy
and
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_semaphore

 

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I sign our magazine articles "See Into The Invisible". Thanks for reading.

Best Wishes, 
Debra Spencer

All Content is © Debra Spencer, Suit Yourself™ International. Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.
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All Content is ©2019 Debra Spencer, Appanage™at www.suityourself.international Suit Yourself ™ International, 120 Pendleton Point, Islesboro Island, Maine, 04848, USA 44n31 68w91 Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.

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All Content is ©2019 Debra Spencer, Appanage™at www.suityourself.international Suit Yourself ™ International, 120 Pendleton Point, Islesboro Island, Maine, 04848, USA 44n31 68w91 Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.
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