The ever-changing fashion for many reasons makes it nearly impossible to keep up with. But looking stylish is not that difficult with a capsule wardrobe: a wardrobe that consists of all the basic essentials, the “fashion classics” so to say, that withstood the trial of time and remain in vogue no matter what. A simple cotton white button-up with collar and cuffs is a fashion veteran that has earned its spot among the wardrobe essentials every woman, no matter the age or body type, must have.
It’s hard to imagine today that a prototype of a modern white shirt has existed since before the Middle Ages and the initial role it played was an undergarment for men. This male nightie had no collar or cuffs and had to be pulled over the head to wear. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that a shirt has evolved past the bedroom only garment and became appropriate to display, thus marking the time when pure and modest design started to change.
Simplicity wasn’t one of the terms to describe the shirt of the mid nineteenth century: lavishly decorated, embroidered, detailed in lace, tailored to fit the body – the white shirt becomes a symbol of prosperity. The wealthy didn’t need to work, therefore could wear this pristine white piece without the fear of staining it.
The original button front design of the shirt was registered by Brown, Davies & Co as early as 1871, and its popularity grew after the first World War. The fixed collar of the shirt was brought back in the 1930s, while such detail as a chest pocket was only introduced in the sixties, when the three piece suits became less common and the vest under the jacket was made more or less redundant.
As for female fashion, it is none other than Coco Chanel the one we should be thanking for the gift of the white shirt, among many others. Bringing a masculine style into women’s fashion was ground-breaking at the time. Since 1920s when a loose white shirt entered the female wardrobe it was popularised by the Hollywood icons of the 1940s: Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Lauren Bacall. The 1953 classic Roman Holidays showed Audrey Hepburn’s character Princess Ann exploring Rome in a rolled sleeve white button-up with lifted collar and a waist-cinching tea-length skirt. But those were the feminine variants and not the current boyfriend-style type that’s so popular.
The late 1960s feminist movement has seen the white shirt become an androgynous piece starting with Twiggy & The Dandy Look of 1967 and going forward into the 70s – Patti Smith’s Horses album cover released in 1975. Hollywood carried the notion with Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn making a white cotton shirt part of their personal style.
The borrowed-from-the-boys design was only gaining strength throughout the decades fueled by the women’s desire to copy the style of the movie characters like Kim Basinger in 1986 9½ Weeks, 1987 Dirty Dancing’s Baby, Julia Roberts in 1990 Pretty Woman and most certainly Uma Thurman in 1994 Pulp Fiction.
It wasn’t long until a white shirt took it’s well deserving place as a fashion staple: earning its status as an essential wardrobe basic with the iconic imagery of top supermodels there to prove it: Peter Lindbergh’s 1988 photograph of Estelle Lefébure, Karen Alexander, Rachel Williams, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz and Christy Turlington in Malibu all dressed in white cotton shirts and Patrick Demarchelier’s group photo featuring Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell among others for the April 1992 cover of Vogue’s 100th Anniversary issue.
Today a white shirt has an endless amount of variations and interpretations, but before you fall under the spell of of-the-moment trend and rush to buy a cropped bell sleeve design think past the latest craze and invest into a timeless piece you will reach for time and time again no matter the season or trend.
by Olga Permyakova
Photos: Pratya Jankong