The newly supercharged women’s power shirt

Women’s shirts mean business this season, in styles that play with volume, colour, shape and sensibility, says Kate Finnigan

Givenchy cotton shirt, £725
Givenchy cotton shirt, £725

When, in 1945, the first female producer at Universal Pictures had her official photograph taken, she chose to do so – arms akimbo, chin defiantly in the air – wearing slacks and a button-down shirt with a slight puff at the shoulder, plenty of volume in the sleeve and a sharply pointed collar. The moment called for impact – and Joan Harrison delivered. Since then, the perfectly turned-out shirt has become something of a leitmotif in the story of women’s rising stature, appearing time and again where influential women are found. One only need glance at classic portraits of Isabella Rossellini, or 1990s snaps of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy on the arm of JFK Jr, to fully appreciate the powerful effect of a woman in a beautifully tailored shirt. 

Whether it is styled buttoned to the base of the throat or opened over the clavicle, whether the cuffs hang nonchalantly over the hands or are drawn up to the elbows, a woman’s shirt is so often the absolute business. As Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director at Matchesfashion.com, puts it: “It’s a failsafe item that every woman should have in her wardrobe and it certainly can empower the wearer.” For spring/summer 2019, designers right across the international collections have embraced this notion – and then some. The shirt has been reimagined in a plethora of supercharged styles that play with volume, colour, shape and sensibility. From Givenchy’s elegant khaki cotton military version with epaulettes (€725), worn with royal blue paper-bag trousers (£1,065) and sparkling chandelier earrings (£1,540), to Louis Vuitton’s punchy, voluminous-sleeved styles (frilled version, £2,300) and Chanel’s pristine button-down (£1,800) emblazoned with the brand logo, the new power shirt has firmly established itself as an essential part of the season ahead.

From left: Palmer//Harding cotton Solo shirt, £315. Burberry silk-satin shirt, price on request. Louis Vuitton silk blouse with oversized sleeves, £2,300
From left: Palmer//Harding cotton Solo shirt, £315. Burberry silk-satin shirt, price on request. Louis Vuitton silk blouse with oversized sleeves, £2,300

And not only in terms of bold design, but also in sheer quantity. According to Alexandra Van Houtte, the founder of fashion-search-engine Tagwalk, there has been a 43 per cent increase in searches for shirts since this time last year. “For the past three seasons, there has been a strong masculine oversized vibe during the fashion shows, which took a whole new direction this spring/summer,” she says. “The concept of shirting is interpreted in a looser way, whether it is the oversized shirt at Balenciaga worn with a fitted, flounced midi skirt, or in Riccardo Tisci’s show, where strong shirting is a principal attribute of the new Burberry woman.”

Any concept initiated by these brands is tantamount to a finger in the wind, sartorially speaking. Tisci’s takeover as chief creative officer at Burberry marked a big moment for the brand, and his debut revealed an intention to appeal both to women who seek daytime refinement and to those looking for more of a streetwear style. His shirts, therefore, played to both audiences – arriving at first in the shape of elegant, elevated takes on the polo shirt (price on request), round-necked cotton blousey styles (£690) that played on the house check, button-downs (price on request) with voluminous pussy bows; a zippy oversized short-sleeved honey shirt (price on request) with a single breast pocket; and a lustrous, super-feminine poppy-red shirt (price on request) that sang with a beige leather pencil skirt (price on request). Later in his show, the interpretations took on a more boyish turn, with oversized versions in green and white gingham (£550) and 1950s-style work shirts (price on request). 

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At Balenciaga, the shirts have a distinctive, off-kilter look. Artistic director Demna Gvasalia is in the process of reconstructing garments with innovative cuts for what he terms “a new architecture of shape”, and he presented a series of long-sleeved, askew-collared shirts (£1,045) in papery cotton twill atop godet skirts in blue denim (£1,095) and glossy black leather (£1,895); and, as part of a modern take on the two-piece suit, in a pink double silk satin (£1,450) with a matching skirt (£1,450). The designer also breathed modernity into short-sleeved shirts (£1,295) with wayward collars, boxy sleeves and bold chain-prints, at once luxurious and full of attitude.

The white pointed collar – a recurring feature in a Prada collection that seemed in part inspired by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby – appeared, with a twist, on poplin cotton shirts (from £670), shedding its typically demure associations. What lay beneath those prim collars was rather more outré: the bodies of the garments had cut-out panels below the collarbone and hybrid shirtdresses (£2,400) in metal-studded cotton and flesh-coloured chiffon created the impression of being only half-dressed.

Joan Harrison, Universal Pictures’ first woman producer, in 1945
Joan Harrison, Universal Pictures’ first woman producer, in 1945 | Image: Walter Sanders/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images

Many designers have, on the other hand, put the shirt’s power into its sleeves, amping up the volume and investing it with unusual details – perhaps none more so than Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton, whose white silk chemises (from £1,600, worn under black waistcoats or jumpsuits) are, in their roomy design, like an update of Empress Eugenie’s 1860s Garibaldi shirt, with lightweight roping running inside the fabric of the oversized sleeves, lending the impression of a loose silhouette. A sportier take comes in the form of a frilled silk/polyester shirt (£1,600) with a stand-up officer’s collar. 

The monochrome theme has also been taken up by Valentino with a series of bold black and white pieces – a black-lace pyjama shirt (£1,590) with matching trousers (£1,490); a dramatic black cotton, ruffle-fronted style (£910); and a collarless, angelic white silk shirt (£1,590) that was worn on the catwalk with a black pleated long leather skirt (£3,450) and belted with a gold V-logo leather belt (£630) – quite clearly the laidback way to ooze stealth glamour this season. Although in terms of ease of styling, it has stiff competition from Alexander McQueen’s sweeping asymmetric, high-collared and sleeveless broderie-anglaise style (£2,795) that drops to below the knee on one side: it’s a shirt that quite simply does all the work for you.  

From left: Balenciaga satin shirt, £1,295. Prada poplin-cotton and chiffon shirtdress with metal studs and satin bow, £2,400
From left: Balenciaga satin shirt, £1,295. Prada poplin-cotton and chiffon shirtdress with metal studs and satin bow, £2,400

This idea of the shirt as one part of a suit or two-piece was also taken on by Peter Pilotto and executed to disco-shimmy effect, using vibrant, shining materials on matchy-matchy separates (from £795). “Blouses in luxurious fabrics with generous and versatile billowing sleeves are a key look for us this season,” says Pilotto. “We like that these pieces can be styled in a complete look or as separates. It allows you to do day-to-night and to simply be playful, which is how we think a modern wardrobe should be.” 

Away from the bigger catwalk shows, the more specialist shirting labels are also seeing a major response to their offerings – with versatility a key factor. “I think there is a move towards choosing well and wearing things for a long time,” says Elliot Atkinson of the London- and Stockholm-based sustainable label Bite, where shirts are a key feature each season. Bite’s bestseller is a shirt (£260) with a sculptural feel inspired by Peggy Guggenheim; it has a 1950s-style collar that opens to the clavicle, a slight cocoon shape and a frill cuff that falls to the elbow. “It’s flattering and very much for a modern, global woman with an appreciation of the arts and great design,” says Atkinson. For this season, the label has created a shirt with a sleek, pared-back cuff that can be rolled up, away from the hand. It comes in three organic-fabric options: cotton (£299), silk crepe de Chine (£399) and peace silk (£599), which is made from silkworms fed off organic mulberry trees in Herefordshire and milled in the UK. 

Bite organic-cotton 50s Frill Cocoon shirt, £260
Bite organic-cotton 50s Frill Cocoon shirt, £260

The British design duo Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding launched Palmer//Harding as a shirting brand in 2012, excited by the notion of creating a garment for the everyday. “A shirt has so many cultural references, which allows it to possess a kind of power,” says Harding. “Its tailoring references hint at authority and structure, yet its closeness to the body gives it a certain ease and sensuality.” Each season, the label’s collection consists of about 55 per cent shirting, with detail variations on the classic tailored shirt – oversize, asymmetry, flouncing, cut-out panels – as well as surface deviations on colour, print and stripe (such as the cotton Solo shirt, £315). “Our customers enjoy the unique twists on those easy pieces that work in their everyday life but offer individuality,” says Harding. Shirts start at around £255, with the most popular style being the Spicy shirt, an asymmetric A-line garment with a flounce on the hem, available this season in a double stripe (£330) and a floral print (£385). “It’s a flattering shape for any body type and is super-easy to wear with just about anything.”  

Natalie Kingham says that while last season was all about the perfect T-shirt for Matchesfashion.com, this season it has been about finding the perfect shirt. The retailer has stocked Palmer//Harding for several seasons and Kingham also speaks highly of the Australian label Aje, which is becoming known for spinning classic wardrobe pieces with fabulously feminine flourishes, such as the flouncy puff-sleeve on its white linen-blend shirtdress (£535, from Matchesfashion.com). 

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One of the specialist brands Kingham has bought into recently is Jermyn Street shirtmaker Emma Willis, who has created for Matchesfashion.com what Kingham calls “the best men’s shirt for a woman” (from £325). “It has been fascinating working with Emma as we learnt so much about shirtmaking in the process – the cuffs, the stitching,” she says. “It took some time to work out the sizing but together we’ve adjusted the length of the sleeve and tail and, in some cases, the fit, while keeping other elements, such as the collar, exactly the same.” Kingham adds: “Whether worn with evening skirts Carolina Herrera-style, over a bikini on the beach, with a tuxedo suit or tailoring, or casually at the weekends, you can wear a shirt with everything.” 

Perhaps its ultimate power really lies in this endless potential for variety and reinvention – and the tantalising realisation that there is never only one that’s perfect.

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