It may be a menswear staple, but the white shirt is anything but basic. If this item conjures images of buttoned-up white collar workers, then you're missing the beauty in its versatility. Simplicity always makes room for stylistic flair.
With that in mind, does the white shirt maketh the man, or is it the other way round? It's a chicken and egg situation, really. Buying the right one certainly helps (more on that later) but it's what you do with it that counts. Cast your mind back to all the best white shirt outfits you’ve witnessed in history: they’re dripping in insouciant cool.
Take Paul Newman. His favourite Oxford button-down would have usually denoted studiousness, obedience or neat-and-tidy sportsmanship (in the case of Ivy Leaguers). The actor, on the other hand, managed to re-write those rules merely by undoing a few buttons and rolling his cuffs messily. Then, there was Elvis Presley and his bowling shirts: the cuffed short sleeves and popped collar taking them from casual to rebellious.
On the other end of the scale is Sean Connery in Goldfinger (1964) and Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959), whose gleaming white shirts were as buttoned-up as it gets, nestled beneath three-piece suits. It was, in fact, the action they witnessed that imbued them with a sense of attitude – those crisp poplin pieces helped chase villains, fire guns and seduce women without accruing so much as a wrinkle.
But since, sadly, we can’t all be James Bond, which white shirts work for everyday life? The short answer is, you probably need more than one.
Damien Paul, head of menswear at Matches Fashion explains: "There has been a distinct move away from the formality of the white shirt – it's no longer seen as something that needs to be worn with a suit and tie." But while he still believes every man needs a dinner shirt hanging in his wardrobe for formal occasions, ultimately, "it’s all about your lifestyle and your needs".
"Since everyone started working from home, we've seen customers embracing looser, easier silhouettes," he adds. "Shirts that look smart enough for Zoom calls but aren’t as stuffy as something you'd wear to the office."
Now that’s a thought. Recent events could change the face of shirting forever. Today’s already casual climate (even JP Morgan does dress-down Fridays now) could potentially become even more casual, with the increasing fluidity of work set-ups and dress codes going hand-in-hand.
All the more reason to be prepared. Keep a few shirt styles on rotation and experiment with styling – most things can be dressed up or down these days. Here are the six key cuts we consider essential:
Best white Oxford shirt
The Oxford got its name from, you guessed it, the university. There were in fact three other shirts named after Yale, Cambridge and Harvard – they just didn’t stick.
What defines this particular style? For starters, that famous button-down collar (a sporting development: they don't flap in the wind). Secondly, it’s not made of poplin: the cotton yarns are thicker, spun into a basket weave. It means that Oxford shirts get even better with age in their own crumpled, worn way. Basically, buy one now and it’ll last you.
You'll find it this classic number everywhere they sell menswear, but we suggest looking to brands like Beams Plus and Gitman Vintage, who have successfully managed to convert squeaky clean into modish cool. We also love Thom Browne's webbing-trimmed iteration for its authentic Ivy League collar – the kind that creates the perfect 'roll'.
Best white dress shirt
Despite menswear becoming increasingly casual, every man needs a decent dress shirt hanging in his wardrobe for weddings and events.
Dress shirts are the oldest style in the game, dating back to the 1800s. Of course, they were a little more lavish then – adorned with high ruffs and frilled bibs – and now we prefer the simplicity of either a spread or cutaway collar.
Still, there’s a new feeling of flamboyance in the menswear, so why not experiment with one of Burberry's crystal-embellished versions when you’re next wearing a tuxedo?
Best white short-sleeved shirt
Short-sleeved shirts can feel a little Sunday school, or tweenage disco. The best way to dodge this less-than-covetable look? Go oversized.
When Miuccia Prada debuted her camp collar shirt for A/W'16, the world went nuts for its boxy, cropped silhouette. Back then menswear was still stuck in its slim-fit, longline noughties ways, and no designer had yet managed to nail that forever-chic Fifties cut.
Needless to say, many brands have now finally caught on and now you can find a few alternatives at decent price points (COS’s iteration is the best on the high street right now).
Don’t just settle for anything, though. The key to the short-sleeved shirt’s cool is in its dominating shape, bolstered by an ever-so-crisp cotton poplin structure. Wear it loose with Dickies work trousers, tucked into pleated wool pants or open, layered over a T-shirt.
Best white long-sleeved shirt
We’ve covered dress shirts and Oxfords in this edit, but long-sleeved styles are in a whole league of their own. If the white shirt was traditionally seen as a little basic, then designers have successfully changed this in recent years. Because what’s more disruptive than a distorted classic?
Utilitarian trends are making way for pocket-laden pieces, while Raf Simons never fails to re-invent staples with out-of-proportion sleeves and graphic prints. If that's all a bit much for you, though, Sandro’s half-zip pullover is one to add to your casual wardrobe.
Best white linen shirt
Ah, the linen shirt, the stuff of Riviera regulars and Panama hat-wearing yacht owners.
Don’t be put off by the level of flamboyance this piece often creates, it can also feel super-relaxed. Just keep your chest chairs (however bountiful) firmly out of sight and stick to media dad-inspired pairings like cargo trousers, selvedge jeans and Birkenstocks – rather than chinos or white trousers.
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