An Illustrated Shirt of the 1850s

Welcome to my first Blog – and to the Wallis Collection (pun intended)!

I have been collecting men’s historic clothing and accessories since 1970, when I bought my first item with my saved-up pocket money. Since then I have amassed thousands of pieces, spanning the years 1690 – 1890, but always felt like a miser, with the things I love hidden from view, only occasionally being revealed to fellow collectors and when giving lectures on historic men’s dress. Like any obsessive, I yearned to share the things I love with a wider audience but lacked the means to do it (short of opening my own museum…Hmmm, not a bad idea…)

Shirt 1850s-9But now, with the wonders of technology, I can share with the world the things that give me pleasure! I shall write two blogs a month, highlighting unusual examples of men’s dress in my collection, and hope that you will feel the same way about the pieces as I do.

I am often asked to name my favourite piece, but find this impossible as they are all my favourites, otherwise they wouldn’t be in my collection. But the first item I’d rescue from a fire would be today’s object, an extremely rare example of a printed shirt from the 1850’s.

Shirts in the Georgian and Victorian periods were not always white – coloured and patterned ones were worn by sailors, workmen and sportsmen but never in ‘Polite Society’, where white was the only colour permissible.

I have a named and dated example of such a sportsman’s shirt from 1863, which I hired to the costume designer for Spielberg’s Lincoln. That example is cotton and carries a pattern of browney-mauve abstract printed shapes, repeated all over the white ground. And I have studied an amazing example of a similar shirt in the collection of Norwich City Museums, which has a white ground over which is printed a repeat pattern of top-hatted cricketers!

So what are we to make of this piece, a type of garment Dickens and his contemporaries called an “Illustrated Shirt”? Who would have worn it, where and why?

Shirt 1850s-6Well, the first question is easy to answer because, like most period shirts, the owner’s name is inscribed (in this case in ink) at the hem: W A Conran

Where? At fashionable resorts such as Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea or the Coal Hole and the Cider Cellars on the Strand, and similar ‘Free and Easies’. Maybe even at the sea side. But not when trying to woo a lady, as her papa would strongly disapprove.

And finally, why? Well, purely to be ‘bang up to the mark’, as he would have said. Fashionable, in a word.

Shirt 1850s-8

And how would he have looked in all his ‘Swell Toggery’?

This song sheet is from my collection of ephemera. It shows the typical wearer of such an outrageous, infra-dig garment, a type of young man referred to in the slang of the time variously as a ‘Downy Cove’, ‘Heavy Swell’ or ‘Gent’ – as opposed to gentleman.

Dickens’ clothes were described as being ‘somewhat of the flash order’ and though he may never have worn such a shirt, like Disraeli (another dandy) he was never entirely a gentleman, always merely a ‘gent’, despite his wealth and fame.

So we may imagine Mr. Conran, the proud owner of this exceptionally rare garment, looking much like the chap on the song sheet cover, dressed in the high style of the 1850’s. But he is even more fashionable than the fellow in the drawing – look at the roller-printed pattern on the shirt front (or bosom, as contemporaries called it).

Shirt 1850s-2We see ladies sporting the scandalous and controversial ‘Bloomer’ costume of the 1850’s, together with flirty female dancers (note their short skirts) waltzing and dancing the polka with Hussars and Lancers, the dashing officers of the Light Cavalry who were the  heroes of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

So Mr. Conran is making an unmissable personal statement in his choice of such trendy and controversial shirting; that he approves of the scandalous Bloomerism movement and is obviously himself a racy fellow, perhaps a champagne-swilling, cigar-chomping, soubrette-ogling ‘Stage Door Johnny’ – a type brought to the stage of London’s Wilton’s Music Hall by George Leybourne in his immortal song ‘Champagne Charlie’.

Other contemporary pictures from my ephemera collection show the mid-Victorian artist John Leech’s depictions of ‘Bloomers’ in their dress-reform attire, and one of his cartoons clearly depicts the disapproval of the ladies but the approbation of most of the men at the sight of the winsome young ‘Bloomer’…

Mark blog picmark blog pic bloomer 2

One final thing to add is that the shirt is made of cotton, which was increasingly the practice by mid-century, but curiously the cuffs are made of fine linen which still bear traces of starch. It was the fashion in the 1840’s and 1850’s to turn one’s wrist bands (shirt cuffs) back over the coat cuff, so starched linen aids that. But the low collar, which would show above the neckcloth, is made of cotton. I can’t work out why the collar doesn’t match the cuffs.

Well, there you have it – my first Blog all about a very rare garment. Next time I shall unveil another item which I hope will interest you.
Thanks for reading!

Posted in Undergarments.

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2 Comments on "An Illustrated Shirt of the 1850s"

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Eileen Hill

I really enjoyed reading this article. A very interesting & informative piece, written in a relaxed friendly style. I am passionate about Historical Clothing and keen to learn more. I look forward to reading more about your collection Mark and will share your page.

Laura Gale

Thank you Eileen.