Collar stiffeners are essential shirt accessories for the well-dressed man; they enable the shirt collar to lay flat against the collarbone rather than curling up or down. For none UK readers, what the British call collar stiffeners may be known as collar sticks, bones, tabs or stays, although stays are also those safety pin type clips that connect each collar tab via specially made holes in the shirt fabric.
Today the collar stiffener delivered with a shirt is usually made of plastic, pointed at one end and rounded at the other. This is inserted, pointed end first, into a specially made pocket on the underside of the collar that reaches to the point of the collar. On some shirts the collar stiffener may be sewn into the collar, but accidental damage, especially during laundering can result in them buckling or breaking. For this reason, shirts with removable stiffeners are the best choice.
Before the invention of plastic, collar stiffeners were made from solid strips of metal such as brass, celluloid, mother of pearl, horn, ivory, whalebone and valuable and unusual woods. There is a reference in an encyclopedia of 1809 to collar sticks being made of boxwood found on Box Hill in Surrey, although whether these were for the collars of a shirt or the collars of a coat or other garment remains unknown. Suffice to say that the principal and effectiveness of collar stiffeners was well known by this time.
Today’s shirt collars descend from the ruffle created by the drawstring at the neck of the medieval shirt, which was an undergarment rather than an exposed shirt that we are familiar with today. However, when the exposed shirt collar became fashionable detachable collars became popular as they allowed the shirt to be worn for several days while the collar could be changed for a fresh one as and when required. Lace collars were imported from the Holland where there was a thriving lace industry.
These detachable collars would be stiffened with starch during washing to make them crisp. The starch served a secondary purpose in that dirt and sweat would adhere to the starch rather than the fabric and this would easily wash away during laundering along with the starch.
In early Victorian times the shirt collar would generally be worn turned upwards rather than folded down, but as fashions changed to less showy designs the downward pointed collar became the standard that we know today. Having a shirt with a crisp shirt collar was an important fashion feature, but starched collars were stiff and uncomfortable to wear and in the early part of the 20th century many patents for designs for alternative collar stiffening devices were applied for.
There is a source that claim that the modern collar stiffener was invented by Max Rittenberg an employee of Alexander & Oviatt a Los Angeles haberdashers who made their own branded shirts and that Rittenberg’s boss, James Oviatt didn’t patent the idea and gave it to a friend who was a salesman for the Van Heusen shirt-company. However, this claim refers to a date of no earlier than 1912 while as pointed out above, there are several patents earlier in the century for many varieties of collar stiffeners.
Today solid silver collar stiffeners are a fashionable and much longer lasting than the plastic, celluloid, wood or whalebone alternatives. They make terrific gifts for the well-groomed man, especially when personalised with the name or initials of the user, or a special message. The message may be hidden, but the user will have a regular reminder of it when they change the stiffeners between shirts. Messages from children engraved on the stiffeners are especially popular.