White Is Always Right

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He wears

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.



She wears

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.

From Earhart to Dietrich to Hepburn to Rosie the Riveter, we dare to flaunt our innate power, and the shirt, whether inspired by him or a softer, ladylike version, is fashionably front and centre. At 20, Norma Jean Baker might be found in Hollywood modelling a modest monogrammed number; at 35, Marilyn Monroe is starring opposite Gable, pairing the white stuff with rolled up dungarees. In the ’60s, Jane Fonda goes barefoot in the park, showing off a set of great gams in no more than Robert Redford’s anti-establishment powder blue pajama cut. Decades later, plus ça change: for her 1998 Oscar appearance, Sharon Stone helps herself to her hubby’s trim classic to top off a ball skirt. Stealing from his closet? Brilliant. Sexy? Absolutely.