Shirt Collars: Different Styles Over the Years

The shirt collar is an often overlooked aspect of menswear since many people buy and stick with one style. However, minute details- the length, height, tie space, and spread can completely change an outfit; they can even point to a specific era.  As we have discussed before with suits and ties, shirt collars have gone through numerous changes from the beginning of the century. While the spread collar reigns supreme today, different collars work better for different people, so taking cues from the past can help, especially if you’re on the path of creating your own style.

Washing shirts in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a difficult and time consuming process. To save time, men would wear shirts with detachable collars and cuffs– which, since they were the only exposed parts of the shirt, could be washed separately. These collars were often stiff, made of either paper (which could be simply wiped clean), or actual fabric, which had to be washed and starched.

By the 1910s, standing collars and wing collars were being phased out in favor of turndown collars, which framed the necktie well. While it wasn’t uncommon to see patterned shirts sold with matching collars, they were oftentimes paired with contrasting plain white collars.

During WWI, men had become accustomed to the soft, permanently attached collars of their service shirts. Upon returning home, veterans purchased dress shirts with the same features. Detachable collar shirts still saw the lion’s share of sales until the end of the decade, and they were still popular among the wealthy and seen on formal shirts (and they will remain in vogue until the 1950s). The spread collar was introduced around this time, but short point collars were standard wear; club collars were popular as well. The 1920s also saw a boom for the button down collar, which was first introduced in the 1890s by English polo players.

Point collars got longer in the 1930s, and what resulted was called the spearpoint collar shirt. This collar (my personal favorite) had a subtle curve near the point that resembles a teardrop. Generally, they were about 3 ½ inches long, but some Hollywood celebrities, such as Walt Disney or John Barrymore, had shirts with collars as long as 4 or 5 inches. Collar bars or pins complement this shape quite well, and they can be worn open casually as the “runaway collar”, with the points lying flat on a jacket’s lapels.

Not all spear points were the same, as brands would come up with their own designs and versions of it, changing the spread and length of the collar. Also popular during this time were short, rounded collars and eyelet collars, which you can see in advertisements and illustrations of the period. All styles were usually designed for small, four in hand knots.

vintage shirt collars styleforum

The spearpoint collar continued to be worn into the mid 1940s, but would begin to fall out of favor with the introduction of “the bold look”: suits were bigger and bulkier, ties were wider and longer, and the windsor became the go-to tie knot. To compensate, wide spread point collars came into fashion. At the same time, button down collars worn with bow ties became a minor fad. Also during this decade, the “convertible collar” (better known today as the cuban collar or camp collar) became incredibly popular for casual-wear.

vintage shirt collars styleforum

By the mid-1950s, the bold look had faded, and the new trend leaned towards simplicity. A 1952 issue of Esquire describes the unprecedented variety of collar styles on the market: short point collars, spread collars, and tab collars were just a few of them. Still popular was the button-down collar, this time with many more varieties including a wide spread for windsor knots, rakish rounded button down collars, and models with an extremely exaggerated roll. The trend would continue as the ivy look gained dominance in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A shorter version of the club collar also gained prominence in that time.

Fashion is definitely cyclical, seeing how the late 1960s and early ‘70s drew much inspiration from the clothing of the 1930s. Suits once again featured wide lapels, nipped waists, and wide trousers, with a “modern” twist. Shirt collars too, were reminiscent of the spearpoints worn decades earlier, with one major difference: the teardrop curve was now absent. The body of the collar was wider, the band higher, and the points longer, leading to an exaggerated look. Use of polyester, “the fabric of the future”, was gaining popularity, and these disco shirts were often cut from 100% synthetic material, with built-in collar stays to preserve the shape. The idea was that they wouldn’t flap around while you were dancing!

vintage shirt collars styleforum vintage shirt collars styleforum

Normal 1980's shirts worn with awful suits.

Normal 1980’s shirts worn with awful suits.

Shirts returned to a more traditional look during the 1980s and onward: simple point collars were the norm until the 2000s, but the 1980s and ‘90s saw trends of their own.  Gordon Gekko style spread collars with contrasting fabric and tab collars were popular among businessmen, while the band collar was often seen on casual looks. Thanks to the “Mad Men” craze of the late 2000s, 1960s style short collars gained steam. Later, the already short 1960s point collar was reduced even further by “fashion-forward” designers, with some barely holding a tie knot. Menswear soon moved away from these tiny point collars and embraced the spread collar.

The classic spread collar isn’t actually a modern invention, but it’s definitely different enough from the point collar to mark it just touch more interesting. Classic menswear enthusiasts know not to fill up the extra space with a wide windsor knot; the lightly exposed parts of the tie attributes to this collar’s charm. Eventually, the spread collar gave way to the more exaggerated cutaway collar (again, not a modern invention), with fashion designers going for the extreme. The spread even influenced the latest iteration of the OCBD, with some brands offering wide spread OCBDs with a huge roll.

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Time can only tell what the next fad in shirt collars will be. For the past few years, the spread collar has been king, however, with the resurgence of ivy style, OCBDs have been getting more wear as well.

Personally, I think that a collar choice is up to the individual.  You can’t go wrong with the spread or button-down, but if you’re someone who likes playing with different styles, or simply wants more variety in his closet, a look at the past will provide more inspiration than a quick browse of the #menswear trends on your Instagram feed.

You can keep up with Ethan’s thrifting and vintage adventures on his Instagram (@ethanmwong) or on his blog Street x Sprezza.

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Ethan Wong
Ethan Wong lives right in the middle: he’s too modern for the vintage scene and yet too vintage for classic menswear. When not at work, he spends his time writing and taking pictures for his blog, Street x Sprezza, which is all about bringing vintage style into the modern day. With a large collection of thrifted vintage and contemporary clothing, he often wonders when his closet will finally implode.