It seems a bit silly to refer to the white button-down shirt as a trend since there is, in fact, nothing less trendy than this imposing classic that has stood the test of time. (Seriously, these collared babies have been burning up the proverbial runways since the late 1800s.) Regardless, the white shirt is back again this season with enough spins to make your head, well, spin. While some may say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I am welcoming this redux with open arms. As a self-professed maximalist with a leaning toward bright and shiny things, I have always felt that a white shirt is the ultimate palate cleanser – the one piece I know I can return to again and again for utter calm.
Amid the chaos of today’s increasingly frantic headlines, it seems that designers are also chasing sartorial peace. Their quest has led them to find yet more ways to reinvent the wheel this season – Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli started his spring/summer 2020 show with 12 variations of the classic white shirt. “I wanted to work on something universal, to get back to the essence of shape and volume,” he told the press. The results included a wide-collared wrap-dress with gorgeously crisp pleats, a simple button-down covered in frothy feather wisps and a shirt-dress with undulating ruffled sleeves. At Pyer Moss, the white shirt became a subversive vehicle for sex appeal when designer Kerby Jean-Raymond cropped it right under the breasts. And at Loewe, a sublime caftan shirt with airy bishop sleeves was the ultimate meditation on Spanish romance.
When I was in my mid-20s, after a few wild years of living in New York and a prolonged love affair with leggings, I, too, was seeking a restart. I rediscovered pants and developed an obsession with tailored white shirts (often paired with extreme black skinnies – revolutionary, I know). This phase happened to coincide with me taking a marketing job for a high-end department store with a very generous employee discount. And so I bought endless reworked odes to the white shirt, from an Alexander Wang button-down with criss-cross panels down the back to a 3.1 Phillip Lim cropped capelike number to one by Acne that was surely too transparent for daytime, though I wore it to the office anyway.
“As a self-professed maximalist with a leaning toward bright and shiny things, I have always felt that a white shirt is the ultimate palate cleanser – the one piece I know I can return to again and again for utter calm.”
I remain certain that the white button-down will be my gateway to the Stylish Women Everywhere Club – a calling card that bridges the gap between “I own an iron and I know how to use it” and “Oh, this old thing?” The staple garment is able to play with polish and ease breathing elegance into now iconic fashion moments, from Audrey Hepburn in an oversized sleep shirt in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (read “I’m dishevelled but in a chic way”) to the cover of Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses (“I’m boyish but poised”), to the time Julia Roberts’ character is forced to throw one over her racy dress in Pretty Woman (“Big mistake – huge!”).
The white button-down shirt was an early feminist signifier too. After the style was invented by Brooks Brothers in 1896 (originally as a more fitted answer to the too voluminous shirts men wore, and subsequently needed to pin down, while playing polo), it was adopted by both sexes. And with the rise of the suffragette movement in the 1900s, women fighting for the right to vote wore white as a symbol of purity.
So call it the sartorial version of an inhale – the point to which, during meditation, one is told to return when one begins to lose focus – or call it an extremely easy win. Either way, the white shirt will always be where I find my centre.
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