Q: I often see the term “boiled shirt” in older novels, as here in George Orwell’s Burmese Days: “The boiled shirt and piqué waistcoat seemed to hold him upright and stiffen his moral fibre like a breastplate.” I know that it refers to a man’s dress shirt, but why boiled?
A: When the term “boiled shirt” showed up in the US in the mid-19th century, it referred to a white shirt that had been cleaned in boiling water. It was the kind of shirt one would wear to church, the office, a dance, an important meeting, and so on.
The earliest example in the Dictionary of American Regional English is from a June 10, 1853, letter by a California gold miner:
“I don’t look much older, or at least I think I won’t, when I get shaved and get a ‘boiled shirt’ on, which I have not had since I left home, for we don’t boil our shirts here, for we think cold water quite enough in a country where there is no female society.” From the John H. Eagle letters, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
(We’ve found an earlier, though less enlightening, example in a humorous story about a practical joke played on a man “in a ‘boiled shirt,’ and clean inexpressibles.” From the June 3, 1848, issue of the Locomotive, an Indianapolis weekly.)
In Roughing It, an 1872 travel book cited by DARE, Mark Twain writes about the hostility of California miners in blue shirts toward men in white shirts: “They had a particular and malignant animosity toward what they called a ‘biled shirt.’ ”
In the early 20th century, people began using the term “boiled shirt” for the stiff, heavily starched shirts that men wore with formal wear. These shirts featured rigid reinforced fronts, firm detachable collars, and stiffened cuffs.
Here’s an early example that we’ve found: “You may be able to force an old-fashioned man to wear evening dress and a boiled shirt after he becomes wealthy, but you can’t convince him that he is eating Dinner at Supper time” (Los Angeles Herald, Nov. 19, 1915).
When Orwell uses the term in Burmese Days, he’s also referring to the heavily starched dress shirt worn with formal wear. In the 1934 novel, Mr. Lackersteen wears a boiled shirt with a white dinner jacket at the European Club in Kyauktada, a fictional district in colonial Burma, now Myanmar.
Dorothy L. Sayers has fun with the noisy front of a boiled shirt in Gaudy Night, a 1935 mystery. At a reunion dinner at Oxford’s Shrewsbury College, a benefactor of the school, Dr. Noel Threep, has a front so stiff that it pops as he moves:
“When he bent over his plate, when he turned to pass the mustard, when he courteously inclined himself to catch what his neighbour was saying, his shirt-front exploded with a merry little report like the opening of ginger-beer.”
Miss Pyke, the college’s classical tutor, asks Lord Peter Wimsey about the popping and he explains: “The explosive sound you mention is produced when the shirt-front is slightly too long for the wearer. The stiff edges, being forced slightly apart by the inclination of the body come back into contact with a sharp click, similar to that emitted by the elytra of certain beetles.”
We’ve barely touched on the subject of formal wear in this post. If you’d like to read more, check out the guides for black tie, white tie, and morning wear on the Gentleman’s Gazette website.
[Note, Dec. 23, 2019. A reader comments: “About the ‘boiled shirt.’ The term may have to do with starching. Real, old-fashioned starch, the sort that comes in a box, must be dissolved in boiling water. Once it has been dissolved, shirts (and anything else) are soaked in the solution. The clothes are hung until damp, then ironed. The result is akin to a bullet-proof vest: not particularly comfortable, but it never wrinkles.”]