Mr Darcy’s Shirt

Back in March of this year, the New York Times ran a piece about the famous Regency period shirt that turned British actor Colin Firth into an international heartthrob virtually overnight.

If you’d like to see it in the flesh, as it were, the shirt is on show at a free exhibition organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity,” which opened on August 6, and will run until November 6, 2016.

But for those who cannot go, here’s the next best thing. “The Shirt”, in all its glory!

The shirt worn by actor Colin Firth during his portrayal of Mr. Darcy as he emerged from the Pemberley pond in the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice production
The shirt worn by actor Colin Firth during his portrayal of Mr. Darcy as he emerged from the Pemberley pond in the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice production. Credit Folger Shakespeare Library

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Considered by many to be the definitive adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 BBC/A&E co-production is one of the most successful period dramas ever created.

And it’s not hard to see why: superlative acting, attention to detail in costume and sets, and faithfulness to Jane Austen’s 1813 novel … that is, except for one scene—the Lake Scene.

One of the most unforgettable moments in British TV historyThe Guardian

An amusing moment in which Darcy tries to maintain his dignity while improperly dressed and sopping wetWilliam Grimes, NYTimes

Although absent from Jane Austen’s novel, the Lake Scene has garnered adulation the world over from an army of fans, and spawned a host of imitations, including this reenactment by Benedict Cumberbatch for charity.

It’s one thing to see Colin Firth donning a wet shirt clinging to his well-honed physique in today’s context, but from the perspective of the early 1800s, what we’re really looking at is Darcy in his underwear. Prior to the 20th century, shirts were worn as undergarments. Not until the seventeenth century were men’s shirts allowed to show; but when they did, it carried the same suggestive undertone as visible underwear today. And as late as 1879, a shirt with nothing over it was considered improper.

Trivia
It was quite common for men of the eighteenth century not to wear any underpants. Shock, horror! They relied instead on the long tails of their undershirts and on lining sewn into their breeches to perform the same function as drawers.
Showing the typical cut of the late 18th century, this finely finished shirt has gussets below the arm for freedom of movement and a shoulder gusset for a better fit through the neck and chest. Approximating the shape of the body, it allowed for more fullness at the front without adding bulk at the waist.

1780. Shirt. French. Linen. metmuseum
1780. Shirt. French. Linen. metmuseum
1780. Shirt. French. Linen. metmuseum
1780. Shirt. French. Linen. metmuseum

Created from linen fiber in 1816 by Elizabeth Wild Hitchings for her husband Benjamin Hitchings, a sea captain. Hand-stitching shirts for the family was common practice for wives or servants prior to about the mid-19th century. Elegant stitching was a hallmark of the care taken prior to the widespread use of the sewing machine.

1816. Shirt. American. Linen. metmusem
1816. Shirt. American. Linen. metmusem
1816. Shirt. American. Linen. metmusem
1816. Shirt. American. Linen. metmusem
Do not presume to understand a mannequin’s feelings. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love youMr. Mannequin
1816. Shirt. American. Linen. metmusem
1816. Shirt. American. Linen. metmusem

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References

  • Some Thoughts on Men’s Shirts in America, 1750-1900 by William L. Brown III The History of Underclothes by C. Willett and
  • Phillis Cunnington What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America by Linda Baumgarten

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