It would be hard to overstate the importance of linen to the history of human dress.
It’s up there with fur and fig leaves as the earliest material used to cover our bodies. Garments made of flax fibres (linen, in other words, or linum usitatissimum, if you’re feeling fancy) can be traced as far back as the oldest civilizations. Archaeological evidence of linen has been found throughout the Middle East and Europe. These date from between 5 000 and 3 000 B.C.E., but some estimates suggest humans have made clothes from linen for at least 10 000 years. The Ancient Egyptians revered the material enough to wrap their dead in it and references to linen, especially as a symbol of purity, appear throughout the Bible, as in the Book of Revelation where fine linen is called ‘the righteousness of saints’.
You can see linen’s cultural centrality reflected in our language. Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles points out that the word linen appears in some form in almost every European language, both modern and ancient. In English, meanwhile, it acts as a blanket term, referring not only to the well-known fabric but also bedding, sheets, table cloths — really (as corroborated here by Merriam-Webster) any ‘clothing or household articles made of linen cloth or similar fabric’. Such expansive linguistic usage offers a window into just how central and pervasive linen once was to human life.
Indeed, by the Middle Ages, it had become the main textile in Europe. It was only at the start of the eighteenth century that cotton began to gain ground. Cotton took a long time to supplant linen as de facto raw material because of just how difficult it was to process. Linen, by contrast, was considerably cheaper to raise, in addition to being soft, durable, absorbent, and easy to wash and dry.
Of course, it’s also notoriously prone to creasing and, as such, fine linen was much-prized in an age before wrinkleless synthetics. Linen shirts were once included in wedding dowries and given as luxurious gifts. In Regency England, owning an abundance of white linen shirts became a marker of status: the finer, whiter, and more numerous one’s linens, the greater the distinction. This was no small thing in a time before regular bathing (in fact, the spread of linen sparked attendant improvements in personal hygiene). Those occupying society’s highest rungs sought enough shirts to change them throughout the day. Soiled shirts would then be sent off to the country for laundering, far away from the grime of city life.
All of this was in no small part thanks to Beau Brummell, the grandfather of modern menswear, who advocated ‘fine linen, plenty of it, and country washing’. Snobbery surrounding linen and laundering remains evident in our speech today, discouraged as we are from airing our dirty linen in public.
But the days of peak linen are long gone. Today it’s seen primarily as a summer fabric, its coolness and crisp texture being ideally suited to warm weather. In the world of menswear, ubiquitous as it once was, linen now seems largely relegated to a subset of dressers who can carry it with confidence. Not everyone feels they can pull off a linen suit, and, looking around summer resorts and outdoor dining establishments, it seems only the fanciest vacation dads don shirts made of linen. Indeed, talk of linen suits and -shirts seems like the stuff of bygone decades at a time when shorts and T-shirts reign supreme. And then, of course, there’s the wrinkling, though these days even that can easily be taken care of with the infusion of crease-resistant resins.
But why resist the ruffle? As Bruce Boyer so eloquently put it, ‘in an age of the wrinkle-free, no-iron, and the highly pressed, the beauty of linen is seen in its ability to corrugate, a mark of old-school elegance’.
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