White Is Always Right
What gives the white shirt its good bones? Could it be the mix of Middle Ages provenance, worn sans collar and close to the skin as an undergarment, with the half-dozen centuries of innovation that followed?
Take, for example, the standing collars of the 14th century or the decorative embroidery, frills and lace of the 17th and 18th (and who could forget Colin Firth, our own generation’s Mr. Darcy, emerging from a leap in the lake in a dripping blouson that would make the scene’s architect, Jane Austen, blush).
It’s business as usual through the fin de siècle, all man as Fred Astaire dances cheek to cheek through Hollywood’s golden era in its stiff collar and tails and then, it happened one night — Clark Gable gets undressed, strips off his tailored white to reveal a bare chest, no undergarment required. The shirt becomes the mid-century modern staple à la Cary Grant, with the button-down prepped for the Ivy League, until the contemporary designer’s creative tabula rasa hits the Swinging ’60s and moves to colour, stripes and pattern (think Mad Men meets Fleet Street). The back-to-basics choice for the ’90s minimalist movement morphs into the millennium when along comes a guy named Barack from Hawaii to make a new world political statement dressed in a clean-cut white, the refreshing uniform of a trailblazer. The rest, my dear, is sartorial history.
Women, too, have a history with their whites. Long before lensman Robert Mapplethorpe snaps punk provocateur Patti Smith in mannish manner for her seminal album, Horses, or Mario Testino captures the newly single Jennifer Aniston for Vanity Fair in nothing but the tailored menswear staple, the white shirt is an androgynous style choice. In the ’20s and ’30s, the designer Coco Chanel doesn’t have a problem borrowing from the boys, embarking on her European sojourns in a great white, making it her own with bows and pearls and the tone’s natural contrast, black. Her adoption of the look creates a new à la mode: women’s sportswear.