If it’s Monday, then you may have popped on a white shirt to stave off those Monday blues. A classic white shirt is always office-appropriate and perfect for a nine-to-five look. But it can swing into the weekend with ease. Have you ever wondered how this iconic classic earned the nickname white-collar in reference to social class? It all started in the early nineteenth century or what is commonly called the Victorian Era. Way back in the day, the working class could not afford to have their clothes laundered as often as the upper class. Saturday was laundry day for the common man and woman, and we all know a white shirt needs frequent washing (and maybe some starch) to keep it in pristine condition. But a blue collared shirt could readily hide a stain or two, so it could be worn throughout the week and more or less make it to laundry day. These social/laundry conditions led to a distinction between the upper and working classes based solely on their apparel. Hence the terms white collar and blue collar were born.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the white dress shirt with its stiff collar and fitted shape evolved and became more affordable. Men were seen everywhere, from church to the promenade sporting a classic white shirt. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Prince of Wales (a fashion icon) exchanged white shirts in favor of fluid-colored ones. The simple white shirt was used less to distinguish class when that happened. Instead, the white shirt began to take on a symbol of masculinity, power, and respectability. It wasn’t long before businesses like IBM mandated a dress code for their employees utilizing white shirts. Maybe that’s when we coined the phrase working stiff. Better manufacturing techniques replaced a stiff collar with a relaxed fit throughout the years, and the white shirt morphed once again. But how, exactly, did women begin to incorporate this classic into their wardrobe? Again, we have Coco Chanel to thank when she combined an iconic menswear staple with one of her jersey suits. The difference between a man’s and a woman’s shirt was the collar was left unbuttoned.
It wasn’t long before movie stars and musicians interpreted the white shirt. Lauren Bacall wore a white shirt in Key Largo, and Audrey Hepburn was seen in Roman Holiday, with rolled-up sleeves and a popped collar. In the fifties, screen actresses Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe repurposed the classic white shirt, wearing their versions and catapulting a simple button-down into an iconic classic. Anyone remember the Beatles wearing a black suit, white button-down, and tie? Hard to believe this iconic band started their careers with a tried and true uniform. The white shirt was now a fashion statement for women and men.
Through the years, the presence of the white shirt has remained steady and true. It’s still seen regularly on the silver screen. Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, or Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. And we’ve seen the simple white button-up walk the red carpet. Who can forget Sharon Stone wearing her husband’s white shirt with a lavender skirt from Vera Wang? Princess Diana was regularly seen wearing a white shirt and fashion icon Carolyn Bessette Kennedy too. These days Amal Clooney, Victoria Beckham, Megan Markle, and Zendaya all don this classic wardrobe staple, and for good reason. A simple white shirt is far from boring as it can be styled in multiple ways. Wear it with a skirt, blue jeans, chinos, or even a pair of shorts. Dress it up or dress it down; this classic has staying power.
Last count, I have close to two dozen white shirts hanging in my closet. From a tuxedo shirt to a silk blouse, stiff cotton button-up, and, of course, a relaxed linen shirt that’s perfect for a hot summer day, I can’t get enough of this versatile wardrobe staple. Today, there are so many versions of a white shirt – non-iron, silk, cotton, statement sleeves, oversized, the choices are endless. So I’ve pulled together a list of the best white shirts and shown various ways to wear them from work to the weekend.
Banana Republic has an oversized tech shirt that looks great with blue jeans. Try a crisp poplin bishop sleeve, or a balloon sleeve safari shirt for a trendier look. A tuxedo shirt from Ralph Lauren is perfect to wear to a holiday soireé, and I love his classic white oxford shirt that looks chic with chinos. Talbots always carries a perfect white button-up, and Chico’s has a no-iron white shirt that makes life easy. J.Crew has a white popover shirt that found its way into my cart and heart! Theory has a button-up shirt in organic cotton that’s a dream to wear, and I love their gorgeous fitted shirt in stretch silk, a sleeveless A-line shirt, and a menswear shirt in cotton.
Silk shirts, linen shirts, cotton shirts, or poplin, the classic white shirt is a wardrobe staple that can be styled 365 days a year. How do you like to wear your classic white shirt?