THE ICONS:

THE WHITE SHIRT

The Times' Fashion Director and author of 'How Not to Wear Black', Anna Murphy, on the underrated key piece

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The white shirt. A sartorial sigh of relief if ever there was one. A tall glass of milk rendered in the crispest cotton. Deliciously undemanding, yet delicious all the same. The epitome of simplicity, yet – bought right, worn right, accessorized right – anything but dull.

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It’s the perfect blank canvas. And you can choose to keep it blank, that canvas-cum-chemise of yours. Invest in a choice example and the alchemy of collar and cut that has delivered so well for everyone from Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday in 1953 to the assorted “supers” captured by Peter Lindbergh for the cover of British Vogue in 1990, can work its magic for you, too. Nothing frames femininity better than the supposed masculinity of a white shirt. 

But you can also use that blank canvas as, well, a canvas: a starting point for all manner of painterly flourishes. You can make like Monet.

The brushstrokes might be yours: some chandelier earrings, a hot hue of lipstick or perhaps a brooch. (The latter approach was chosen by one of the earliest female white-shirt adopters, Katharine Hepburn in the 1938 film Holiday. Prior to that, no nice girls wore white blouses. Shirts were strictly for the boys.) Then again, the flourishes might be the shirt’s own: a ruffle, a flounce, a bow, embroidery, a bouffant shoulder or cuff; all of the above.

Woman in workwear clothing

THE WHITE SHIRT

Carolina Herrera is the designer who first turned the shirt into a thing of sumptuousness. Not for nothing is she known as Our Lady of the Sleeves. There remains no more soignée approach to black-tie dressing than hers: white shirt + full floor-length skirt. Totally timeless. Manifestly modern.

She once told me that she spent her horse-crazed childhood in Caracas in white shirts and jodhpurs. Her gift to the world was to reinvent that uniform in the guise of effortless after-dark glamour.

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Back when shirts were not for women – before the exploratory sallies of Hepburn et al – they were what men used to signal their professional status. Only the affluent could afford to keep their whites white. You were a white-collar worker or you were a blue collar one. (Either way, it goes without saying, you were male.) Now a woman uses a white shirt to signal something else, that she is both pulled-together yet fuss-free, the kind of apparent contradiction which is the acme of 21st century chic. 

It’s the ambidextrousness of the white shirt that makes it such a key player in our wardrobes. We women live lives more manifold than ever, and our clothes need to be able to duck and dive as nimbly as we do. Nothing is as fleet of foot as the white shirt. Good with jeans. Good with a tuxedo suit, or that Herrera princess skirt. Good with everything in-between. No wonder designers work so hard to stamp their signature on the genre, from Simone Rocha’s intricate elaborations to Tome’s inventive minimalism. 

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Whole brands are built on shirting these days, like Equipment. That’s because our wardrobes are built on shirting too. Indeed, the very fact that we talk about “shirting” rather than mere “shirts” shows what an important matter this has become. Why? Because shirting is a solution, and we need those more than ever.