The white shirt has come out of its shell this spring. In fact, it has had a personality transplant. It will not have escaped your notice that the white shirt has been A Thing in fashion for ages, but until now it has always been a deliberately blank canvas. Plainness has been the whole point. A crisp, buttoned-up white shirt was meaningful in a blank-piece-of-paper kind of way; a simple, soft ivory silk blouse, à la Stella Gibson, was suggestive in a bedsheets kind of way.
The new white shirt comes with an extra topping of fashion. It’s stopped being a coded sartorial cipher, and become a look-at-me piece in its own right. I don’t mean embroidery or ruffles or anything as predictable as that: I mean a white shirt with attitude. Basically, when shopping for this shirt, pretend you are Zaha Hadid. Think to yourself: would Zaha wear this? Is it a bold, sweeping architectural statement? Does it suggest its wearer is at the vanguard of blue-sky-thinking modernity? Because that’s the shirt you want. Look for Sydney Opera House shapes, artist-studio balloon sleeves. Zoom in on looping apron ties that look expensively artisanal, touches of wit. (When I say wit, I mean the highbrow kind. Alexander McQueen’s white shirt of the season has an extra seam curving in bolero jacket shape around the body, for instance, like a tracing paper echo of a matador. That sort of joke, not the slogan-T kind.)
The new incarnation of white shirt is not the grab-and-go type that comes to your rescue when you press snooze on the alarm a few too many times. It might well work with jeans, but it won’t necessarily work with the first pair of jeans you try on. But then the old-school super-plain white shirt was demanding in a different way: it required exactly the right hair and the perfect minimal jewellery to lift it from school uniform to simple chic. It was, after all, a blank canvas. Whereas – once you’ve found a bottom half that works – the new white shirt does the talking for you.
Photograph: David Newby for the Guardian. Styling: Melanie Wilkinson. Hair and make up: Sharon Ive at Carol Hayes Management.
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