Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… the importance of white shirts

The man who entertained strong views on the subject of nocturnal shirting

Swellboy on… the importance of white shirts

Image: Brijesh Patel

October 09 2010
Nick Foulkes

At a book launch at Claridge’s I was fortunate enough to bump into Hugo Vickers, who has long been something of a hero of mine: he has written and edited more biographies and memoirs of more interesting people than you can shake a forest of sticks at, among them the autobiography of Alexis de Redé. De Redé was an aesthete par excellence and Hugo told me that when he was visiting him in his apartment in his beautiful hotel particulier in Paris, he always took care to wear a white shirt after sunset. In some strange rite, that seems straight out of Bram Stoker; white shirts were all that de Redé’s cultivated sensibilities could handle after dark.

“I dislike fervour and enthusiasm. I do not like noise. Very often, I remain silent, for silence has its own dignity. I listen for the nuances that stir behind the Babylon of general conversation. I relish comfort, style and luxury. I dislike men whose socks are so short that when they cross their legs, they expose flesh. I dislike men who do not wear white shirts in the evening. Many such things I dislike.” It was lucky then that de Redé did not get out much, as the modern world – he died in 2004 – would have disgusted him; instead he preferred to stay at home surrounded by his antiques. “I am not a philosopher, but I am conscious that few live in the way that I do. Most of the world moves too fast for hand-made shoes, and elegant luncheons. It is a pity.”

Couldn’t agree more. Dealing with one’s shoemaker can be a full-time business: I am still trying to get Eric Cook to come up with that pair of pigskins that were brought tantalisingly into my grasp and then whisked away because of some minute imperfection.

Anyway: back to the shirts. It has taken me a fairly long time to come round to the white shirt. For many years they tended to strike me as being a little too corporate and, dare I say, a touch common. With a white shirt, I always felt that there was the hint of a breast pocket bristling with prestige writing instruments and a lingering sense of the travelling salesman’s coathanger in the back of the car.

My white shirt epiphany came when I discovered Charvet on the Place Vendôme around 20 years ago. Charvet is simply too civilised a shop for vulgarity to be allowed across the threshold. It is a place of tranquillity and sophistication which offers its bespoke customers no fewer than 400 different shades and types of white shirt. I have not counted them all, so there may be more, but I have a seen an entire wall of white silks and cottons, piqués and pinpoints, voiles and linens in differing shades and textures of white.

According to the courtly Jean-Claude Colban, who, together with his sister Anne-Marie, runs this French national treasure, white is the ultimate test of both weaver and shirtmaker. “White doesn’t lie; it is the truest expression of the fabric so even in sheer broadcloth minute changes of quality in the yarn and construction in number of threads and so on all show and give new shades of colour.”

Of how Charvet came to assemble what must be the shirt world’s largest library of white, he says that with the combination of different weights, different finishes, sheer fabrics, woven patterns, and subtle chromatic variations that can lend the lightest hues of pink, yellow, blue, grey and so on, hundreds of variations are soon achieved.

As for the white shirts he wears himself, many of them will not be made available to his customers, not for reasons of exclusivity but rather because after repeated washing and wearing they simply do not match his stern criteria. With a touch of gentle sorrow in his voice, he says: “In today’s world there is a big difference between what a fabric will be like after a few washes and what it seems to be like at first. People are fooled by a silky handle to the fabric that is a silicon handle and not natural, so once you wash it, you remain with something that is little bit disappointing.”

When viewed in such Proustian terms, it is easy to see why De Redé entertained such strong views on the subject of nocturnal shirting. Moreover, de Redé’s views were echoed in unusual quarters, Lord Lucan expressing as much to the late and much missed Mark Birley over supper one night in Annabel’s. “He was typical of his generation, and had impeccable manners. I had dinner with him and his wife at Annabel’s,” Birley once told me, recalling how Lucan became somewhat agitated: “At one point he nudged me and he said, ‘You know, it is the most extraordinary thing but there is man over there wearing a pink shirt.’”

A pink rather than a white shirt in a nightclub… it seems that whatever else he was prepare to countenance in life, there were some lines the errant Earl was not prepared to cross.