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A boiled shirt typically refers to men’s dress shirts worn in the 19th and early 20th century. The boiled shirt may also be called a boiled front shirt. These shirts were very stiff, keeping wrinkles at bay and almost assisting in maintaining upright posture.
The reasons for creating boiled shirts were twofold. As men’s dresswear, boiled shirts needed to be very white and clean, and without washing machines, the best way to make a shirt as white as possible was to boil it. Secondly, the boiled shirt was boiled in starch to create an extremely stiff shirt that would resist wrinkles and remain impeccable in appearance. As people who wear period costumes will tell you, the boiled shirt can be somewhat of an adjustment to wear since it doesn’t bend well and feels much stiffer than most men’s dress shirts of today.
Folks who enjoy period dressing for reenactments of famous events, like Civil War enthusiasts, often go out of their way to find a boiled shirt if they are playing upperclassmen or generals. One main complaint is finding appropriate laundering for such shirts. They won’t remain stiff after they’re washed, so you must find a cleaner that is expert in re-starching them so they remain stiff.
Though you can still find some boiled shirt styles today, especially as worn under tuxedos, they are now not especially common. By the mid 1920s, men had stopped wearing boiled shirts in favor of softer more lightly starched shirts. However, the stiff look of formal wear could be maintained by wearing a smartly tied bowtie and the right waistcoat. When you think of some of the elegant male actors of the past, like Fred Astaire, it’s easy to see the necessity of wearing something less stiff. It would have been more difficult for Astaire to dance with grace in a shirt that didn’t move with him.
There are a number of other boiled clothing types on the market. Sometimes you’ll see the term boiled wool. This process of boiling wool helps to shrink wool fibers to create softer, felted wool, which has some protection against stains and wetness. It’s also stretchier and more breathable.
Some fabrics are preshrunk through boiling. You may see boiled t-shirts, or boiled jeans. Since these fabrics tend not to be boiled in starch, they are actually softer and more malleable than the boiled shirts of the past. They also tend to be easier to wash, since they may not shrink further if placed in the washing machine.
Actually, Fred Astaire wore boiled shirts in some of his finest numbers ("Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails," for instance.) They're not as uncomfortable as one might imagine; after all, one's chest never rotates at all, and the bib stops above the waist.
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