According to Alan Flusser, a doyen of modern men’s dress, 1827 was a particularly significant year for the collar. This is when a certain Mrs Montague, of Troy, New York, no less, cut the collars from her husband’s shirts, because they were a nuisance to iron. ‘Thus was born the detachable collar.’[i] Flusser is right, but his no-nonsense guide to fine dress overlooks the fact that Mrs Montague’s act of sartorial vandalism – even if her husband’s shirts were ‘filthy’ – was to revive a style, rather than create one.
Since the sixteenth century aristocratic men (and women) had been wearing detachable collars or ruffs, as the starched and frilled variants are invariably termed, to denote their membership of an early modern Leisure Class. Like their American successors, whom Thorstein Veblen theorised about in the nineteenth century, the early adopters of the ruff, whose head was literally ‘held high in an attitude of disdain’, indicated to all that they were unable to undertake practical labours, and did not need to.[ii] The ruff had an avowedly sociological purpose, as portraits of Ançien Régime aristocrats reveal. It was also delicate. If the intricately cut and embroidered starched lace got wet, it would instantly droop, which would have been a fitting, if frustrating, reminder that facades can slip.
The powerful portraiture also shows that the silhouette of men’s dress between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries was generally tubular, although toward the end of this period shoulders were narrower.[iii] So long as the sun shone, the ruff increased the man’s physical size and, simultaneously, drew attention to the terminus between the body and head.