Produced by acclaimed filmmaker David Puttnam, The Mission (1986) is an epic 18th century set tale of Spanish Jesuits who travel into the South American jungle to protect an Indian tribe from virtual extinction under the Treaty of Madrid (the formation of what we now call Brazil).
Jeremy Irons plays one of these adventurous Jesuit priests, tough but mild mannered Father Gabriel. During the film’s first act, as Gabriel undertakes a death defying waterfall climb to reach the Indian tribe, he wears a classic example of early extreme sports attire – a plain linen shirt:
Natural linen open-neck shirt with long sleeves. Turn down outer collar and internal stand collar, wide spread with drawstring ties.
In this very physical instance, Irons in a billowing white shirt, dressed as practically as any man (a priest in particular) could possibly be in 1750, foreran Die Hard’s John McClane and his grubby singlet vest.
It is perhaps not widely known that men’s shirts did not button all the way down the front until at least the end of the 19th century, even as late 1910-15. Jeremy Irons is wearing what we now commonly refer to as a ‘tunic top’, but really it is a shirt. In actual fact, it’s underwear. With functional ample sleeves and minimal decking, a shirt during this time was not for peacock display; a situation that would remain as such for another hundred years or so. Cotton too did not replace linen as the dominant material until the end of the 19th century.
Draping of the shirt is generous; more linen the better. Jabots, ruffs, and other such embellishments were fast becoming a thing of the past. As with Beau Brummell during the early 1800s, the style was plain linen and as much as possible. Gothic inspired, in fact. Romantic.
Currently there is not a summer that goes by when shirts of this type aren’t gracing the pages of men’s fashion supplements. They are normally worn untucked and adorned with simple embroidery at the neckline.
In stifling heat a tunic top will always be the most refreshing choice. Safer in the sun and undeniably more elegant than a singlet vest. Just add Jeremy Irons’ rolled up trousers (though maybe not in wool) and you are GQ good to go. Dress like an 18th century Jesuit – it’s all over Milan.
© 2009 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.