18th Century

An 18th Century Men’s Shirt

I’m unsure why I haven’t yet posted about this shirt, but I haven’t been very good at blogging this fall. Hopefully I’ll have more time to write in December!

For the first time I wore my Robespierre costume, I wore a shirt that was decidedly sub-par: it fit awkwardly because the sleeves were too short and the neck opening was too big. Now, you may think that I would have first fixed my shirt when I remade my Robespierre ensemble, but you would be wrong. Instead, I decided to make the bear of the project, the frock coat, first. So the day I intended to wear my ensemble (Friday of Costume College), I was still stitching buttonholes in my cuffs, and the shirt wasn’t actually hemmed until after Costume College. C’est la vie. Luckily, my second shirt fits quite well, and it’s very comfortable. Additionally, it’s entirely handsewn, which makes my Robespierre ensemble now entirely handsewn, which makes my heart happy.

I didn’t take many construction pictures, but the shirt is sewn with linen thread. All of the seams are backstitched and then felled with whip stitches. The patterning and construction are based on the shirts described in Costume Close-up and Everyday Dress of Rural America, 1783-1800, and particularly on the shirt featured in Fitting and Proper, the date and appearance of which corresponds most closely to the shirt seen in Robespierre’s portrait. The neck and cuffs of the shirt fasten with antique Dorset buttons (I believe that they’re from the turn of the century), but I think that the thread buttons that Hannah of Fabric & Fiction describes would be more accurate.

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Maximilien Robespierre, 1790 (anonymous), held at the Musee Carnavalet, via

As you can see, Robespierre’s shirt seems to have a neck ruffle that is almost pleated, so I did my best to emulate this by neatly gathering my neck ruffle with whipped gathers.

Here are some pictures of my completed shirt:

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The collar may look high, but it folds down when the shirt is worn.

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I reinforced the neck slit with a triangle of fabric embroidered with my initials and the Roman numeral I. At the time, shirts (and shifts) were numbered so that they would be easy to differentiate because they would often look quite similar and most people had several.

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The triangle of fabric here is the neck gusset – there is one on each side, to allow for the curve of the shoulders.

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The underarm gusset
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The cuff features decorative top stitching along the top and bottom.
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Most 18th century shirts were long enough that a side slit was necessary for mobility.
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The side slit is reinforced with a gusset.

After having made this shirt, I have a few tips that I think might be helpful if you would like to make your own 18th century shirt:

  1. Make sure that the length of your collar corresponds to your neck measurements, with room for a slight overlap. If it’s too big, it will pull at the shoulders of your shirt uncomfortably.
  2. Give the shirt enough extra fabric to gather it to your collar. As you can see, my shirt is hardly gathered at the neck and it should be more so.
  3. Make your sleeves a little bit longer than you think you need. Sleeves that are too long are more comfortable than sleeves that are too short.
  4. If your shirt seems stiff after having sewn it, try washing it (by hand). The linen should soften up.

Thank you for reading! If you have any tips for making 18th century shirts and shifts, please share them in the comments.

3 thoughts on “An 18th Century Men’s Shirt

  1. Your ruffle looks like whipped gathers rather than stroke gathers? I expect the pleats on the portrait are pressed in. You can see all kinds of examples of this is Patterns of Fashion 4.

    Liked by 1 person

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