Is there anything in the sartorial world as unifying as a white shirt, except perhaps the jeans with which it is often paired in the ultimate expression of insouciant smartness? It’s hard to imagine the British foreign secretary William Hague and Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie having anything in common, except for their UN work – and the white shirts they both wore on a recent visit to the Congo to highlight the plight of victims of wartime sexual crimes. They were very different shirts: his a businessman-in-the-tropics number; hers a sporty creation that looked refreshingly cool and rocked this year’s trend for sheer and opaque.
The shots of the pair summed up the white shirt’s appeal – businesslike and, in Jolie’s case, also feminine and stylishly understated. This wardrobe essential can express personality whether you’re a government minister or a glamorous actor. Many others have played it to similar advantage: think Diana Princess of Wales by a minefield in white shirt and chinos; Sharon Stone at the Oscars wearing one belonging to her then-husband teamed with a Vera Wang skirt; or designers Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo taking their catwalk bows in minimal make-up and plain white shirts – modern takes on the traditional couturier’s coat.
Long heralded as the working woman’s friend, the white shirt can make any suit look efficient – just add jewellery to go from day to night. Now, however, it has taken on a life of its own, morphing from support act to starring role. Designers such as Viktor & Rolf, Jil Sander and Richard Nicoll have long featured the white shirt as a motif, albeit with the occasional break. Viktor & Rolf return to the theme in their upcoming autumn collection with both feminine bows (£525) and punk cutouts. For them the white shirt is “a blank canvas – clean, crisp, optimistic and ready to be twisted by us with new proportions and details, but as much of a staple as a trench or a little black dress”.
Palmer//Harding, one of the most fêted young double acts in British fashion, is building a whole brand around the white shirt, slowly adding other items to set it off. Carolina Herrera, one of the most elegant shirt-wearers on the planet (in her favourite portrait of herself she sports a white shirt and ball skirt), has created a capsule collection of eight pieces, ranging from a neat peplum number (£265) to a flamboyant evening shirt with a huge bow (£170). “Each season has a story, and eight white shirts don’t necessarily fit in,” she says. “So I’ve created these styles for different occasions.”
Many designers turn the shirt into an art piece, with highly considered design and cut in the best fabrics. Attention to detail is paramount and may mean a line of tiny looped buttons on a Vanessa Bruno silk collarless shirt (£295), or a tracery of hand-laid silk cord in a delicate windowpane check effect between two layers of silk chiffon in a design by London couturière Anna Valentine (£2,950). Valentine also has a delicately hand-tucked and ladder-stitched, short-sleeved style in the finest cotton lawn (£765), while a Palmer//Harding model features a trim of tiny, embroidered French knots (£499). Fine details can also be found in the feminine cuts from Italy 0039 (£143) and Thomas Pink (from £125), which are made using the smoothest cotton and are a good length for coverage when worn over trousers, or guaranteed to tuck in perfectly.
Finish and fabric turn such a classic item into a show-stopper, says Valentine, whose shirts are all handmade and fitted to order in her Marylebone atelier. “Their importance has grown markedly in the past five years,” she says. “I have clients who order statement shirts first, and items to go with them as an afterthought. A really good shirt should go equally well with a hat and skirt to Ascot as with jeans at the weekend – and, if well fitted in the right fabric, can act as a summer jacket.”
Customers of the new Mr Start Woman made-to-measure shirt range can determine shape, sleeve length, collar style and fabric. Designer Dorothee Schumacher says she wears her own cleverly detailed shirts – plain cotton but with a metallic embroidered collar (from £246) or in silk with a split back (£210) – “open-necked over slim trousers in the working day, but buttoned up with a piece of silk organza tied into a bow, tucked into high-waisted trousers and with high heels in the evening. Minimalist or elaborate, the white shirt can fulfil the demands of every woman in its own way.”
Such versatility is thought-provoking. Christopher Raeburn’s styles (from £245) – some made from recycled parachute silk, in keeping with his ethical stance – get lengthened into dresses, as does Margaret Howell’s crisp, sleeveless piqué style (£385). Joseph’s white shirt (£225) has a detachable leather collar, while Thomas Pink creates tunic-like styles (£250) that can be belted for evening glamour or buttoned into a fitted shape.
“Women want clothes that work for their wardrobe and stay the course,” says Thomas Pink’s creative director, Florence Torrens. Lasting quality is also a basic principle for Palmer//Harding. “We started the brand two years ago as a reaction to fashion disposability,” says Levi Palmer. “It’s out of keeping with the current climate to throw things out after a season. Our idea is to reinvent a classic in ways that are new but still timeless.” There is, says Torrens, “a refocusing in society, and in fashion, on what offers true value. A perfect white shirt is a natural expression of that.” Sander agrees that “reworking the fabric, cut and proportions of a shirt [Sea Island cotton shirt, £360] says a lot about the mood of the moment”.
All agree that the shirt’s outlines have changed in recent years. “It has become more relaxed, even in a formal context, with wider shoulders and sleeves and a smaller collar, and is as likely to be in silk as cotton,” says Valentine. Variety has blossomed as designers incorporate current trends, such as vintage influences. Harding says their major inspiration has been “an early-20th-century archive with couture details, such as a little belt inside to give the perfect shape or fine interfacing inside seams to make them lie flat”.
Similarly, Bruno strives “for the contrast of a modern cut and relaxed vintage details. Fabric is crucial, whether it’s a soft silk crepe de Chine or an embroidered cotton voile with a crisp energy. In summer, collarless silks work with the pale shades you’d get in a vintage make-up palette – ecru, powder-pink, palest grey. But moving forward to early autumn, I prefer a sharper, more masculine look in cotton.”
This masculine-feminine tension is another strong theme, which will be amplified in autumn. McCartney’s summer shirts are teamed with slouchy, white trousers, while the shirts themselves are sporty yet very feminine in broderie anglaise or fine-spun sheer and opaque cotton mixes. Joseph’s creative director, Louise Trotter, has christened her favourite masculine-cut silk shirt the Garçon (£225) – to be worn, she says, “starch pressed and tucked out, layered with a loose, fine-knit sweater”. Thomas Pink’s equivalent is the Darcy (£125), which, says Torrens, “has masculine details but is cut in a feminine way and made in different factories from our men’s shirts. It goes easily from work to evening – just add red lips and a bright belt or bag.” Meanwhile, Palmer//Harding’s more complex cuts (from £499) can be worn as work shirts, says Harding, “as even backless designs can look conventional under a jacket, and then be revealed for evening”.
Stores confirm that unique styles are the top sellers. Céline’s white shirt with pink details (£465), McCartney’s sheer panelled shirt (£540) and Etro’s embroidered collar style (£445) are doing well at Joseph. At Fenwick, designer womenswear buyer Craig Hewitt says, “We’ve repeat-ordered on interesting styles from less familiar brands such as Sofie D’Hoore [£199] or Odeeh [£259], alongside headliners such as Paul Smith [shirt with mustard-yellow lace cuffs, £265] and MaxMara [sheer opaque shirt, £199]. There’s a yearning for clean, crisp modernity after seasons of bright print.”
Quite so. If my wardrobe is typical, it’s the prints that move on while the white shirts stay till they are literally frayed at the edges.