An Apology to the Puffy Shirt

Once mocked on "Seinfeld," now beloved on "Bridgerton" — could the puffy linen shirt be your next summer staple?

April 19, 2022 6:00 am
Puffy shirts on Harry Styles, Jonathan Bailey, Jerry Seinfeld
Have you accepted the Puffy Shirt?
Neilson Barnard/Netflix/Shondaland/NBC

It has a place in the Smithsonian. It’s been on multiple Mr Darcy’s. Most recently, Anthony Bridgerton of the eponymous Netflix serious pulled himself out of the water in one made of a material that could just barely be classified as fabric.

It’s the white linen puffy shirt, and it could finally be having its proper moment.

The puffy shirt, or poet shirt, is mostly viewed as a period piece staple, whether that’s regency-era England or on Orlando Bloom in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Bridgerton Season Two’s release in March of this year has inspired many a thirst trap Tik Tok and Twitter freak-out dedicated to the puffy shirt. Bridgerton Costume Designer Sophia Canale said that Anthony’s wet puffy scene in the Netflix series was inspired by Colin Firth’s dip in the pond in the BBC 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini series, saying that “Whenever you see that kind of Regency man, everyone’s automatically going to go to [Firth as Mr. Darcy] because it’s such a famous scene.” They apparently even tested the fabric to get it as see through as possible.

The linen puffy shirt has never fully disappeared from our screens, large or small, but its most famous role was the one that mocked its existence in the first place: Seinfeld’s second episode of the fifth season, ‘The Puffy Shirt’, from 1993. Jerry doesn’t properly hear Kramer’s girlfriend Leslie’s request for him to wear her design on a talk show and agrees, and comes out in what can only be described as a heap of doily fabric. Two years before Firth’s Mr Darcy causes Elizabeth Bennett’s heart to stop when they run into each other at his estate, Kramer tries to convince Jerry to wear a puffy shirt by saying that the pirate-inspired look will be “the new look for the ‘90s”

Kramer: You’re gonna be the first pirate!

Jerry: But I don’t want to be a pirate!

‘The Puffy Shirt’, Seinfeld Season Five, Episode Two

Later, on the talk show, Jerry confesses that he feels “ridiculous in it, and I think it’s the stupidest shirt I’ve ever seen, to be perfectly honest with you.” Leslie is mortified, and the show continues without another puffy shirt in sight for the rest of its run. The poet shirt, beloved by pop artists like Meat Loaf and Duran Duran, was declared dead by the series. 

Seinfeld’s early ‘90s fashion perspective was taking a glaring look at the New Romantic subgenre in mens fashion that was popularized in the 1980s. Part David Bowie and part Flock of Seagulls, New Romantic fashion was inspired by Lord Byron and the musical Cabaret; that included puffy shirts and eyeliner on men before it was mainstream. But in Jerry and Kramer’s 1993, the puffy shirt was already losing its “cool” edge and instead looked, well, lame. 

In one retrospective on the episode from Decider in 2018, the author writes that “There’s one major reason why the puffy shirt is still just as funny today as it was 25 years ago: Leslie was absolutely horrible at predicting fashion trends. The puffy shirt did not come into fashion, it was never the style, and it still isn’t the style.”

But that’s not necessarily true. The puffy shirt found its way back into mainstream fashion again and again, just maybe not as in as puffy a version as the Seinfeld one. After the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise in the early 2000s, clothing designer Jean Paul Gaultier released his Spring 2008 pirates inspired collection. Harry Styles rocked a (purposefully) see-through black variation of the puffy shirt on the Met Gala red carpet in 2019. Shows like Bridgerton have inspired more Regency-adjacent clothing on runways, from empire waist dresses on women, to ready-to-wear corset tops. As more androgynous men’s fashion becomes the norm, romantic-era clothing is becoming a common silhouette to see in high fashion, celebrity culture, and out and about. 

Shirts similar (albeit, maybe slightly less puffy) have popped up in summer fashion advice for men, along with other New Romantic-inspired pieces: instead of a totally puffy shirt, what about a breezier linen top a la Call Me By Your Name, which has been used for menswear summer inspiration since its release in 2017. On the Spring/Summer 22 runways this year, longer dust coats (hello, Mr Darcy walking through a field in 2005) and more traditionally feminine fabrics like lace and ruffles were featured on the catwalk by designers like Loewe and Comme des Garçons. 

Seinfeld itself has become a cultural staple and a source of fashion inspiration today, whether that’s Jerry’s light wash jeans or Kramer’s printed button downs. ‘The Puffy Shirt’ episode is a reminder of how circular fashion trends can be, even if that circle starts in the 1810s in Yorkshire, and finds a new place to shine on this years’ fashion week runways. Jerry might not have wanted to be the first pirate, but now you can live out your own pirate/romance hero/Mr Darcy dreams in a puffy shirt of your own. (Just try not to get it too wet)

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