The story goes that in the 1820s a New York housewife was fed up with the amount of laundry she had to take care of. The laundry basket contained a large pile of men’s shirts, many of which not even dirty, only the collar was greasy from rubbing against her husband’s neck and hair all day.
She took her scissors and cut off the collar from the rest of the shirt. She washed the collar and sewed buttons and buttonholes on both the collar and shirt to re-attach the collar afterwards. The beginning of a new trend.
Detachable collars were indeed first seen in the 1820s. During that time the white collar was a symbol of social affluence. Keeping shirts and their collars clean was costly and time consuming. A detachable collar simply meant less laundry, which attributed to its success.The introduction of the detachable collar also meant that a larger group of men could afford a white collared shirt.
Detachable collar, the Netherlands, 20th century (TRC 2016.0806).
At first, most detachable collars were made from starched linen. The linen had to be starched every time it was washed. To do so it wasbathed in a starch solution. The starch made the collar stiff, which allowed to shape and hold the collar in the desired form.
The detachable collar, however, came with its own problems. First, it was not comfortable, especially since, following the fashion of the time, the collars grew higher and higher during the late 19th century. Such collars felt unpleasant, poking the neck and chin of the wearer. Combine this with the fact that the collars were made from thoroughly starched linen and you’ll no doubt understand why the collars were nicknamed ‘Vatermörder’ (German for ‘ Father killer’).
Detachable collar, cotton, the Netherlands, mid-20th century (TRC 2018.1242).
Second, starching was still a time-consuming effort. Before washing the redundant starch from the previous starching bath had to be removed. Then the collar had to be bathed in starch again and finally it had to be ironed and pressed into the right shape.
Towards the end of the 19th century celluloid collars were introduced. Celluloid was the first commercially produced plastic and could be used to mimic the look of starched linen. It did not need to be starched, washed or ironed.
Celluloid collars were a huge commercial success around the start of the 20th century. Yet among the wealthy and fashionable such collars were considered to show bad taste and they were regarded as an imitation of the linen version. Moreover, celluloid was even sturdier than starched linen, so it is quite likely it was even more unpleasant to wear than its linen counterpart.
Detachable, cotton collar, the Netherlands, end of 19th century (TRC 2018.2257d). Part of the wedding suit of Evert Grieven, who married Trijntje de Jong Hohvierde on the 16 November 1899.
Another development was the process of 'trubenizing'. By applying a fusible interfacing on the wrong side of the fabric it was stiffened without starch and it also remained washable. Licensed shirtmakers proudly advertised their ‘trubenized collars’ as a selling point for their garments. These collars would be marked with a stamp or label as proof of quality. Trubenizing allowed to create a neat, crisp collar while appealing to the new fashion of softer, lower collars.
Detail of a trubanised collar, the Netherlands, mid-20th century (TRC 2018.1238).
The height of the popularity of the celluloid collar in the beginning of the 20th century also marked the beginning of the end of detachable collars. They rapidly lost their popularity. By the 1930s there were few shirtmakers left who considered detachable collars as daily wear. Most shirtmakers used the starched collar only for formal evening wear. That is, if they used them at all. The youth at the time embraced the soft collar, and the starched collar was seen less and less.
Nowadays detachable collars are a rare sight. Yet they have not completely disappeared. You might still see a starched detachable collar with men who take an interest in highly traditional menswear, in particular lovers of Edwardian-era fashion.
Text by Joshua Verkerk, TRC volunteer