Collars: From Wars To Wardrobes
Collars: From Wars To Wardrobes

From being invented as a protective layer between a knight's armour and the neck, collars have come a long way to serve as the distinctive feature on men's clothing 

What do canned food, Penicillin, ATMs, and the Atomic Bomb have in common with a shirt collar? All were invented during wartime. A few decades later, while evolution has been kind to its counterparts, collars have rather slipped into the shadows on the attention spectrum, even though they have become a subtle yet important distinction of men’s clothing. You button them up on serious occasions, unbutton them after the said serious occasion, and occasionally pop them in case you feel extra douchey. 


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The Gorget 


It is a common misconception that collars are a modern invention; they are not. Collars started 'popping' off in the early Middle Ages when knights, covered in full-body metal jackets and heavy helmets, were left pondering - how to not get stabbed in the neck? The answer was found in something called a Gorget, a piece of armour that protected the throat. As one would imagine, the feeling of harsh metal on one’s neck wasn’t particularly appreciated by chain-mail-wearing knights and nobility, who’d often spend weeks or months on war campaigns. A solution was needed and found when a piece of clothing was sandwiched between the metal neck protector and the skin - the early collar. 


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The Ruff collar 


During this time, the mid-15th century, men's wear was largely dominated by tunics with flat necklines, similar to boat necklines. But things were changing. As the Renaissance era approched, a peculiar thing was noticed in European courts. Suddenly, extra attention was paid to the standing collar. The early adopters were the nobles, who added ruffles, pleats, lace, and more complex elements. This was the neck ruff, designed to draw more attention to the wearer’s face. The bigger the size, the greater the status symbol. It is said that at the height of the ruff pissing contest, each ruff was made out of more than 5 meters of starched material, up to eight inches from the neck, with up to 600 pleats in it. Even Shakespeare got in on it. The collar had peaked, perhaps just in size. 


But as years passed by, the length shortened. At the same time, the cravat — the precursor to the necktie — rose in popularity. Different iterations of these existed throughout Europe. The Gladstone Collar, for instance, became popular in England after being worn by William Edward Gladstone, the British Prime Minister at the time. But the collar was yet to see its biggest evolution. 


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The Detachable Collar


In 1827, Hannah Lord Montague from Troy, N.Y., while doing her husband’s laundry, noticed how the collar, the most visible part of a shirt, also tends to get more soiled. The solution? Snip it off, wash it, and attach it back on. The detachable collar was born. A few years later, around 1827, detachable collars were mass-produced in different shapes and styles. Yet, there were a few drawbacks. The collars were stiff and non-stretchable. It is said that men would sometimes fall asleep in their chairs and then die because the collar prevented blood flow. Called the celluloid collar, they were also quite flammable, alienating their target demographic of chain-smoking Mad Men. 


It was now the early 1900s. The washing machine had been invented, accelerating the clothes-washing process, and negating the need for a stiff, detachable collar in the first place. Slowly, softer collars rose back to popularity. A white shirt, or a white collar, became associated with someone who didn’t want to get their hands dirty—mostly, people in power. On the other hand, blue-collar came to be associated with the working class, who’d often opt for darker colours to hide dirt and stains. First coined in 1924 when an Iowa newspaper used it to describe trades jobs, a blue-collar uniform mostly continues to consist of indigo jeans, overalls, boilersuits, and more. It was also during this time that t-shirts started to occupy more space in wardrobes, as a distinction between office wear and casual wear began to take shape. Then, in 1933, René Lacoste would start making something that somehow occupied both spots, the “smart casual” style. 


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Novak Djokovic wearing the Lactose Tennis Shirt 



Today, there are several styles of collars, each suited to different occasions. The point collar, as the name suggests, features pointy ends and is often paired with office ties. The Wing Collar, conversely, is a traditional and dressier alternative to turn-down collars, typically found on more formal shirts. Then there’s the spear collar, a retro version of the point collar worn under a blazer, and the button-down collar, popularized by Brooks Brothers and worn with Polo attire. Going forward, the envelope continues to be pushed. Brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and Aeropostale have explored various iterations of the 'popped collar,' pushing the boundaries in the preppy douche aesthetic.  


Similarly, Prada’s Spring-Summer 2018 collection also revived one of the biggest trends of the early 2000s - yes, popped collars. As recently as two months ago, Maison Margiela, during its Fall/Winter 2024 showcase, featured boxy black leather blazers worn with popped collars. Today, the collar stands at its softest, subtlest, and quietest, occupying a sort of permanency in men’s wear. What’s the next step? Only the collar gods will know; however, let’s not make popped collars a thing. 


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