I went to an Indian wedding recently – a glorious five-day extravaganza. There was a lot of food, dancing, merriment and several hundred outfit changes. I didn’t want to shell out for excess baggage on the flight (this column doesn’t pay that well), so spent a while trying to figure out what bits of clothing could be utilised several times, after a quick rinse in the hotel sink.
There were numerous nuptial events with varying degrees of formality, from black tie all the way to “casual pizza party in 40C heat”. So what is the most dress-up-able or dress-down-able thing in a man’s closet? What is the most versatile item? It should have been obvious. It’s the humble white shirt.
In a way, your entire wardrobe can be built around one or two really good white shirts. So it’s worth tracking down the best. There are several factors to consider. Given that I find silk a bit pyjama-y, the shirt has to be cotton and, because grotty yellow armpits are such a no-no, lightweight. In a further effort to prevent excessive sweating ’n’ staining I’ll always go for a classic rather than a slim fit. Slim fit does look sharp, but I never feel comfortable when I’m that trussed up, and if I’m wearing a blazer over the top I am guaranteed to get a Sticky Wet Back.
It’s important not to go too far the other way, though – a billowy, relaxed fit will make you look like Percy Shelley, minus the opium (hopefully).
Traditionally if you’re going to wear a suit or blazer over your shirt it should probably have French double cuffs – the fiddly ones without a button that require cufflinks and above-average dexterity. Personally, I find cufflinks annoying and a bit too formal. And if, like me, you’re looking for something that can be worn to a dinner in the evening, but also have its sleeves rolled up and worn with shorts during a balmy day, a cufflinked shirt won’t really do.
There is then the vexing question of the collar. I like button-down Oxford shirts, but a simple collar is the safer, smarter option.
In the end, I took a white Oxford shirt from NN.07 and a slightly smarter Whistles one, with collar straighteners. They did me proud.
There was one day when I wore the Oxford shirt untucked and unbuttoned (not too far, of course) with dusty pink shorts and off-white espadrilles, and I genuinely think it looked OK. Later that same day I wore it under a light-grey suit with a pale-blue tie, and no one was any the wiser. If it wasn’t for the creasing I would have slept in it. That’s the beauty of the white shirt.
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