Celluloid had a strong hand in the decline of paper collars in the early twentieth century. It was fully waterproof and had a longer life, yet it was still a cheap alternative to laundry services. Following the patent wars of the 1860s and early 1870s, it also presented manufacturers with an escape from the over-saturated paper collar market. When American fears about immigrant labor came to a head in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, the new celluloid collar industry made its move. A series of advertising campaigns suggested that wearing celluloid would be an act of patriotism: Chinese launderers, out of a job, would have to return to their own country.
Trade cards for celluloid in the 1880s and 1890s also hinted at a new ideal of masculinity that, ironically, would soon help to topple the detachable collar business altogether. Vignettes of Chinese-American laundrymen taking to the seas merged handily with Americans demonstrating the waterproof advantages of celluloid. These men were not the “spindling, forked radishes” Whitman had described a generation earlier—fraudulent urban clerks who had no substance under their clothes. They were sturdy, athletic figures, striking heroic poses as sailors or emerging from a swim in their waterproof shirts.
Within another generation, this athletic conception of manhood—one associated with what Theodore Roosevelt famously called the “strenuous life”—would help to remake the class identities that had given rise to the detachable collar in the first place. As corporate management became more scientific, a broader and more lucrative range of white-collar work became available. What was once looked upon as a dubious form of loafing became an increasingly respectable livelihood. Meanwhile, masculinity became a point of bonding that crossed over class lines. When ready-made menswear overtook tailored clothing in the 1890s, men of all classes began to look more alike. Many traded their constrictive paper, celluloid, and starched linen collars for unstiffened cotton ones—partly on the advice of medical experts, who believed the body needed space to breathe. These sportier collars could be laundered at home, and therefore they need not be detached at all.
By the 1920s, paper collars and cuffs were mostly a relic from the last century. Yet the cuffs in particular mounted something of an afterlife in the popular lexicon. It harkened back to the early years of commercial paperwear, when the mundane uses of paper made wearing it an almost comical proposition. One cartoon in Punch made light of using a paper collar, in a pinch, to pen correspondence. But the practice of writing brief personal notes on one’s cuff really did catch on. In Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), for instance, Algernon jotted an address onto his cuff as he eavesdropped on a conversation. Public speakers would glance at cuff notes in the course of extemporizing, giving birth to an enduring turn of phrase: “off the cuff.”
In the Age of Paper, throwaway clothing was something novel, and perhaps even uncouth. Now, the cheapest clothing turns up in closets from suburbia to the White House. But today, as then, the materials of fashion do say something about the outlook of the wearer. In the nineteenth century, it was a question of how one earned a living, and whether that livelihood—such as clerking—was a valid and honorable one. In the twenty-first, we look beyond occupational identity and ask about the ethics of the purchase itself. Will it send American jobs abroad, for instance, or will it support unethical labor conditions? But from standing collars to graphic tees, durability (now mingled with sustainability) comes at a premium price, affordable to some and out of range for others. The choice to wear one material or the other is bound up with buying power and character alike, often in complicated ways.