So tell me, gentlemen, what style of collar did you choose for today? Detachable or attached? High-stand or low-stand? Starched or soft? Linen, cotton, silk, or celluloid? Polished finish or dull? Stand-up, turn down, or wing?
Just a few options from the 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.
Regardless of these options, there’s one universal factor: the collar must be clean. The detachable collar, legend has it, was invented in the 1820s when a New York housewife named Hannah Montague removed her husband’s collar from his shirt in order to launder it more easily. The collars and cuffs of mens’ shirts needed extra care; through much of the 19th century fashion demanded a stiff, starched appearance, and anyway those parts of a shirt are more vulnerable to everyday grime and debris (e.g., ink, hair oil…). The work of the laundress or laundryman was a little easier when these fiddly bits could be rubbed, scrubbed, starched, and ironed separately from the shirt itself, hence the introduction of collarless shirts and detachable collars, cuffs, and even shirtfronts. By the mid 20th century, however, men’s fashions had changed, and stain-resistant, wrinkle-free fabrics were introduced. Attached collars became the norm, and a high starched collar is now generally worn only on formal occasions.
We have a number of late 19th-early 20th century collars in our collections, representing only a small portion of the almost dizzying array of style options available to a gentleman of fashion. (If you need a visual, here’s Lloyd Coates, Jr., of Sugarland in a wing-tip collar, or do an online image search for the Arrow Collar Man.) Because collars were so persnickety, they are often mentioned in laundry how-to guides, household hints, and personal accounts of housewives and laundresses. Starching was a messy business, added on to the heavy work of the rest of the laundry, and the sheer numbers of small white pieces – collars, cuffs, handkerchiefs, gloves, diapers, &c. – generated by the average household could be overwhelming. The simplest solution was to send them out to a professional. Many women did their best to divest themselves of the laundry chore altogether, but when that wasn’t possible, the next best thing was to send out the menfolk’s collars and cuffs.
Naturally, there were various inventions and discoveries that tried to mitigate the problem. The three collars above (shown au naturel at left, and held together with collar studs at right) present a continuum of starchiness, as it were, starting with the Arrow “Prom” style wing-tip in the back; this one is starched into shape, with the necessary folded points. The other two are relaxed enough to store flat: First, a Van Heusen collar (in the “Van Hart” style), patented in 1921, which includes the printed instructions “NO STARCH IRON FLAT WHILE DAMP.” (This one is in the center in the lefthand photo above, and on the right – resting on its points – in the righthand photo.)
Despite these protestations the collar has, in fact, been starched, which may point to the inadequacy of the patented technique, described by the inventor as “a collar sufficiently stiff to maintain its upright shape without the employment of starch and nevertheless sufficiently pliable, by reason of the introduction of reinforcing threads in the fabric to receive and maintain a curvilinear set appropriate to the wearer’s use. . . as applied to a collar of the turn-over type.” (Patent # 1,383,694.)
The third option in the photos above is a “Hempstead” style Arrow collar, probably from the mid to late 1920s, which proclaims itself “A FLEXIBLE STARCHED COLLAR.”
(Again, despite the instructions, it is currently in an unstarched state, so it gives a nice contrast to the stiffness of its friends.) Though I suspect that these manufacturer innovations were less about the laundress’s time and efforts and more about the wearer’s comfort, the printed instructions nevertheless provide a hint of the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into a gentleman’s attire.
Other possibilities included celluloid (plastic) collars, “washable” and easily wiped clean. Or, one could also simply avoid the laundering altogether by using disposable collars. The Reversible Collar Company, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of several paper collar manufacturers in the late 19th and early 20th century. This package of ten “Linene” collars (“Plaza” style), circa 1910, provides instructions that explain their appeal: “Wear both sides then throw away.” The cotton-faced paper collars maintained a clean, polished and starched appearance (see below) for a little while, and then could be thrown away with no regrets.
In case you – like me – have never attempted to starch something in your life and require a little more proof of the task’s unpleasantness, here’s an account written by a career “collar starcher” from the late 19th century, and, below, a description of the starching step from 1908 (remember, household laundry was a two-day process):
“To apply starch. – Strain the hot starch through a piece of cheese cloth and use while it is still warm. Select first the articles that require the most stiffness, as shirt bosoms, collars, and cuffs . . . . The garments to be starched should be nearly dry. Immerse them or such part of them as should be starched in the thick starch, and rub between the hands to work the starch thoroughly into their texture. Remove the starch, squeeze out the excess, and rub once more with the hands to distribute the starch evenly through the material [or else it won’t iron well]. Dry the articles, sprinkle them, spread on a clean white cloth, and roll them up in bundles so that the dampness will be evenly distributed before ironing.”
- From Household Discoveries, An Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes and Processes, by Sidney Morse, 1908.
Laundry exhibit status: These collars did not make the exhibit, but there are several others on display.
Linen and cotton collars: anonymous donors. Package of paper collars: donated by Gladys Poffenberger.
More collars! From the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog