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Undressing Mr Darcy

07/10/2015 18:09 BST | Updated 07/10/2016 10:12 BST

Actor Colin Firth was originally intended to appear naked in the 1996 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

As the broody Mr Darcy he was to encounter Miss Elizabeth Bennett in glorious full-frontal nudity, after cooling-off with a swim in the grounds of his stately home. Dressed or undressed, there is no such swim in Jane Austen's 1813 novel, and certainly no nakedness described. The social confusion caused by Darcy's unexpected meeting with Miss Bennett would have been quite clear to Austen's original readers. But would a modern audience understand the scenario? Ultimately writer Andrew Davies decided shirt-and-breeches would be provocative enough. Colin Firth got to keep his kit on.

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And it works. Darcy's TV appearance in a state of partial undress is an exquisite portrayal of desire and embarrassment - thanks to that billowing white Regency shirt.

The fact is, back in the days of Jane Austen, no gentleman would wish to be seen in polite society without a coat or jacket. The shirt in the late Georgian age was strictly underwear - not at all suitable for flashing at respectable females. No wonder Jennifer Ehle as Miss Bennett didn't know where to look when Darcy's shirt was seen.

The Regency gent's shirt was big and baggy-sleeved, and it pulled over the head. The equivalent for women was a vast t-shirt-like garment called a shift or chemise. Shirts and shifts were a buffer between the body and outer clothes, absorbing sweat and other secretions. Chaps could even tuck their long shirt tails into their breeches instead of wearing drawers (ancestors of long-johns).

Darcy's shirt would be nicely starched and (we hope) frequently washed. If he followed the advice of Georgian dandy Beau Brummell it would be of very fine linen. And yet, no matter how clean, or how good the quality, only cuffs and collar were meant to be seen.

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Later in time, Victorian chaps kept their jackets and waistcoats on too, but as ties took over from cravats in the 19th century more of the shirt front was visible. These shirts would fasten with buttons or fiddly studs. Thrifty fellows could wear false shirt fronts called dickeys - very handy for sloppy eaters. True cheapskates would buy stiff, detachable paper collars to save on laundry bills. Toffs tucking into their dinners towards the end of the 19th century had very low cut waistcoats, so lots of shirt on show. King Edward VII dropped puree of spinach down his shirt during a pre-opera dinner at Buckingham Palace. Finding it too tiresome to go and get changed, the King dipped his napkin in the spinach and gleefully used it to draw a picture on the ruined shirt front.

Not all shirts were white (even before a meal). Coloured shirts were often associated with working men or sporty types. Victorian dandies called mashers might have shirts with zany fabrics, including prints of prima ballerinas, or monkeys eating bananas.

On a more sinister note, coloured shirts of the 20th century included the Nazi Brown Shirts of the 1930s and '40s, and the Black Shirts of British Fascists. Fascist leader Oswald Mosley said the black shirt broke down class barriers - 'In the Black Shirt all men are the same, whether millionaire or on the dole.' These shirts were definitely meant to be seen.

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Creeping informality in the last century first gave us shirts with attached collars, and then (horror!) shirts without ties and shirt sleeves on show. Not on formal occasions of course. It was a truly seismic shift in society's attitudes to menswear. The public flaunting of the shirt signified a real revolution that has continued to the present day. Nowadays men dressing for a night on the town may still wear a smart shirt, but it is likely to be untucked and open at the collar. In fact, dress codes have relaxed so much, it can now be acceptable for the modern male to work tie-less or in short-sleeved shirts - all without the covering of a waistcoat or jacket. Underwear has become outerwear. Mr Darcy would be shocked.

Images blogger's own

Lucy Adlington is the author of Stitches in Time: The Story of the Clothes We Wear, published in hardback by Random House Books, £16.99