This expression probably refers to the tendency of a man who is about to fight
to take his shirt off before fighting. Not such a critical precursor to a fight these days, but prudent in the days when most men had only one or two shirts to their name!
""I say, you durned ash cats, just keep yer shirts on, will ye?"
The Spirit of the Times by George W Harris (1854).
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The Angel of Losses
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