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The Timeless Appeal Of The White Shirt

Menswear journalist Josh Sims on the power of keeping it simple in Thomas Pink’s best-selling garment


Acclaimed architect John Pawson says that, while his wife prefers him in blue shirts, he has a deep attachment to white ones. ‘I even prefer other people around me in white shirts too, because they’re the least clashing with the surroundings,’ laughs the master of all things minimalist, who was converted to the garment while apprenticed to Shiro Kuramata, the Japanese designer who wore a fresh, heavily starched white shirt every day. ‘You know, colour is just harder. There’s a directness to white.

Pawson is not alone in his appreciation of the white shirt. Arguably the white shirt is the archetypical shirt. It’s the wear-anywhere, anyhow, any time shirt, simultaneously elitist and egalitarian. For the well-to-do, historically the white shirt expressed their wealth – as keeping their white shirts clean required time and labour. For the rising clerical classes – for whom the term “white collar” was used to distinguish their employment – it would symbolise their aspiration, though they also won the less flattering moniker “white-collar stiffs” from those still in manual bluecollar work.

Indeed, for all that the white shirt may appear to be literally a blank canvas onto which can be projected whatever the wearer feels, in the Victoria era it came to be symbolic of certain desirable qualities in a man – the likes of dependability, sobriety and constancy – much as the white dress had for women long suggested naturalness and chastity.

And if that sounds like an outmoded idea, think again. Much as Thomas Watson, CEO of IBM from the 1920s to ’50s, insisted that all employees wore a white shirt because he believed it projected trustworthiness – thus also helping to establish the white shirt as a central pillar of business dress around the globe – or the engineering nerds of Nasa’s mission control were in the 1960s expected to wear one too, so even today some City banks insist, albeit unofficially, on their staff wearing white shirts. Thomas Pink, equally unofficially, is their go-to provider, throwing in old-school and increasingly rare construction details akin to a bespoke tailor, such as unfused collars, split yokes and off-set side seams.

Perhaps that is because the colour white – and, T-shirts aside, a shirt is likely the only time most men will be seen in white – has historically also projected quiet power. Not for nothing is the monochromatic associated with precision and prestige, form and austerity; with colour – as Pawson notes – all too easily confused with the cheap and vulgar. That was the draw too for the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker or Miles Davis – supreme musicians but also creators of a still sartorially influential “jazz cool” style that made the white button-down Oxford shirt a totem of polish and urbanity. Outsiders in terms of background, class or colour, the white shirt was their calling card, their statement of intent.

The white shirt was, and is, somehow unanswerable – never out of fashion, because, decade after decade, never in it. Just think of Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno, Ryan Gosling in La La Land or just about everyone in Reservoir Dogs.

Is the white shirt also just a little bit safe? Well, maybe. But, as another great architect, Le Corbusier, once had it, ‘simplicity is a discrimination, a crystallisation. Its object is purity’. That’s something those of us who repeatedly go back to the white shirt fully appreciate.