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“Back Again At Collar!”

April 18, 2017

“I’ve bid adieu to cliff and cave,
I’ve said good bye, with sorrow,
To bounding yacht and dancing wave!
I leave for town to-morrow.
There I must toil and strive to earn
The everlasting dollar.
The hour is come for my return—
I’m back again at collar…”

“At Collar,” Fun (London, England), 17 September 1870, 113.

Over the past few months, it has been particularly interesting to study and analyse a collection of detachable men’s collars in the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress (figure 2). We chose to include the collars in our study because we were aware that their finishing agent, mainly starch, was responsible for much of their function as tall and stiff accessories of fashion. The presence of the finish was not at all subtle in this case; in fact, the collars were so heavily finished to such a high level of stiffness and gloss that some of them were initially catalogued in the collection as plastic. While plastic celluloid collars were certainly in use at the end of the 19th century, we examined these collars carefully and concluded that they were in fact heavily coated cotton or linen fabric.

I had come across several contemporary 19th-century instructions, tips, or “receipts” for starching collars in the household manuals and receipt books I have been studying as part of this project. These gave descriptions of how the starch mixture was prepared and applied, and how much work was involved in ironing to achieve the desired look and texture. Interestingly, I read that housekeepers, wives and laundresses (or launderers) apparently added further ingredients such as gum Arabic and different waxes (even spermaceti!) to the starch mixture to create higher levels of gloss and to prevent the iron from sticking during pressing. We set out to analyse the collars to see if we could detect any physical traces of these practices.

With the help of Scott Williams, a conservation scientist currently teaching in the Art Conservation program, we analysed the collars using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) as a method to uncover the different molecular components in their finishes. We first took readings simply of the surfaces of some of the collars, by gently pressing them against the instrument’s sensor crystal and comparing the resulting spectra to other known spectra of materials kept stored in a database on the computer. This gave us enough information to identify the presence of starch on the surface, and to characterize the fabric of the collar to be linen. Next, we analysed a small micro-sample of just the finish taken from a damaged area on one of the collars. This sample gave us a very clear spectrum of the starch, but also revealed that there was something else present. We had to probe further by subtracting the starch spectrum from that of the overall sample in order to identify the other substance. We were excited to find that this other material was in fact a type of gum—gum tragacanth (spectrum can be seen in figure 3). This was an exciting moment where we found physical confirmation of what the 19th-century household literature had described.

There is good reason to put so much emphasis on the finish of the collars and to go to the trouble of characterizing it. The finish itself is particularly relevant to the social and historical context of the 19th- and early 20th-century men’s collar. A stiff and well-maintained collar represented the desired state of order, sober steadfastness, and apparent invulnerability of the upper-class gentleman. During this period, the collar acted as a particularly charged social sign, where subtle differences in its appearance could be read to indicate wide gulfs in social class and status. A “masher” for instance, who was described as a man of a lower class trying to imitate the style and appearance of an upper-class gentleman, was often characterized by his exaggerated adoption of collar styles. There are some great satirical cartoons of mashers from this period. One from 1892 (figure 4) depicts a masher who is unwilling to pick up his own umbrella out of fear that it would disturb the finish of his collar, as if doing so would cause the facade of his outward identity to collapse and reveal his true class and stature. Another cartoon from 1887 (figure 5) mocks the exaggerated height and stiffness of the masher’s or dandy’s fashionable collar, here resulting in his eventual decapitation. The subtleties of collar fashion served to segregate and delineate class distinctions during a time when the rise of the middle class and department store fashions had generally made status less visible.

The marketing of collars in this period reflected (and fueled) this arena of social anxiety; advertisements for Arrow Collars—a popular high-end brand of detachable collars, of which some examples are in the Agnes collection—were careful to market their collars as not just fashionable and stylish, but also “correctly” expressing “the trend of fashion” and “accepted as most proper” (figure 6). This language functioned not only to situate their collars as high-end, but to reassure their gentleman consumers (or their consumers who perceived themselves as gentlemen) that they would not be mistaken for a masher or poseur when wearing their collars.

For the middle class, the collar very quickly became a metonym for the constrictions and struggles of working class life at “white collar” jobs. Satirical cartoons, poems, and editorials of the time emphasize the collar’s overbearing presence. For example, a poem published in an 1870 edition of a Victorian London weekly magazine called Fun describes the speaker’s sorrow of having to return from vacation to be “back again at collar.” The middle class had a harder time maintaining the “proper” finish of their collars, as they did not have domestic servants to undertake the incredibly laborious work of washing, bluing, starching and ironing them to achieve the desired gloss and stiffness. This, in addition to its associations with the restrictions of social conduct and work, made the collar a particular point of middle-class male frustration (as seen in the cartoon in figure 1). Relying on their wives and public laundries for the state of their collars, middle-class men began to turn to ready-made solutions, such as celluloid or paper collars.

However, even for upper-class men, maintaining the proper finish of their collars was an important challenge. As Michael J. Murphy aptly explains in his article “Orthopedic Manhood: Detachable Shirt Collars and the Reconstruction of the White Male Body in America, ca. 1880–1910,” the finicky collar had the power “to reveal any blemish and record every wrinkle … Errant head and body movements, physical exertions, and slovenly habits left telltale evidence on white linen neckwear that, in turn, communicated these to an ever more discerning society.”[1] If the finish of one’s collar was disturbed, they risked the “threat of social shame, embarrassment, and loss of status in the eyes of one’s peers.” As early as 1849, a particularly comical satirical editorial appears in Punch, where the author writes to complain about the hot and humid conditions of the London Omnibuses and the damage they do to his collars after riding on them (figure 7). He “submits” two collars and neckties from before and after an Omnibus ride as evidence, and even includes a sketch drawing of them: the first appears crisp and tall with much structure and volume, the second “chop-fallen” and “hang-dog,” its finish lost leaving the collar’s fabric limp and crumpled. The author dramatically names the collars “Rectitude” and “Shame.” The shame he describes feeling once the ever-important finish of his collar is lost heralds the soon-to-be common adoption of the idiom “to take the starch out of someone”, meaning of course, to humiliate or deflate a person.[2]

It is little wonder then that there were so many “receipts” circulating in household manuals instructing on how to apply the perfect finish to collars, as fashion and society demanded. The housekeepers, wives, and laundresses in charge of maintaining the socially charged finish have a subtextual presence in all of the collar advertisements, imagery and satires circulating during this period. Even in the Omnibus satire, a direct reference is made to the laundress in a post-script where the author notes “My washerwoman will call for the collars on Saturday.” Having a well-finished collar not only spoke to a man’s own habits of cleanliness, order and good form, but also implicated that he could afford to have someone to maintain that finish for him.

Of course it is very unlikely that the labour and skill that went into cleaning and finishing collars was appreciated at the time. However, the development of the collar through various innovations and patents over the course of the 19th century did endeavor to alleviate the level of work involved in its care. Just as the celluloid collar was invented as a labour-saving alternative, the detachable collar itself was born from the early 19th-century discovery of the ease of finishing collars separately from shirts. It is clear that the labour of washing and finishing was integral to these clothing articles. Our project has attempted to emphasize and draw attention to this work and those who performed it by finding and analyzing the physical traces of it left behind on textile artifacts. In looking at the finishes of the collars themselves, a history of labour as well as a history of charged social signs can be found, all mixed up in an elaborate recipe of starching.


[1] Michael J. Murphy, “Orthopedic Manhood: Detachable Shirt Collars and the Reconstruction of the White Male Body in America, ca. 1880–1910,” Dress 32 (2005): 80.

[2] The idiom was already popular in the mid-nineteenth century. In an 1874 article entitled “SLANG” in The Cultivator & Country Gentleman, it is listed that “we threaten not to humiliate or mortify a man, but to ‘take the starch out of him’” (799).

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