The History Of The White Shirt



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The story of the white shirt goes back well over a century when it was a sign of status amongst the egocentric landed gentry. In days before automatic washing machines and dry-cleaning services, laundry was a chore for the ordinary working household, so the luxury we take for granted nowadays of slipping into a fresh shirt each morning was not the norm.

For a gent who wore a white shirt, it showed others that he was not engaged in manual labour for a living, he probably employed servants to launder his shirts and that he had sufficient funds to have a plentiful supply of them.

Further reference of the divide between the educated, salaried professionals who work in an office to those who were engaged in manual labour was first illustrated in America in the 1930’s by the use of the terms ‘white collar workers’ and ‘blue collar workers’ reinforcing the status of the white shirt; these phrases were widely used again in the UK in the late 1970’s during the ‘winter of discontent’ to describe the actions of those groups of workers involved in the industrial disputes at that time – again elevating the white shirt wearing classes by suggesting they were not those responsible for the disruption.

Although today, the ability to have a clean white shirt is not a problem – and they don’t cost the earth either the white shirt remains the epitome of style and good taste. As well as being a sign of social standing due to its heritage, it has also become a sign of confidence – no colour, no stripes; no busy design to distract the attention, your personality will be the key focus of scrutiny instead of your clothes!  Just look at the evidence, you can find plenty of images over the last few decades of iconic, confident people wearing white shirts from movie stars to fashion designers and politicians.

Take stars of the 40’s like Gregory Peck or Fred Astaire who exude elegance and style; then there’s James Bond, sometimes shaken but never creased. It’s often the favoured option for top fashion designers too like Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld who, rather than being wallflowers and the object of their art, they prefer to remove themselves from it in order to let their work stand on its own merit.  But, take a closer look and you’ll discover these arbiters of style will not be wearing just any old white shirt, it will usually be made with a superfine, long-staple cotton and woven in a poplin weave with a high thread count to give a dense, lustrous finish and, of course, the shirt will be meticulously stitched.  And definitely no poly-cotton mixes with these guys.

It seems like the easy-option to have your wardrobe full of white shirts to slip on in the morning when you’re in a rush – after all, anything goes with it doesn’t it? Not necessarily! To carry off the successful, confident look, it actually takes even more care when selecting your suit and accessories as these items will be the focus of attention.  So your suit needs to be beautifully cut to flatter your body and the lapels should reflect the collar style and your stature – narrow lapels equals small collar for instance, a low buttoning suit goes with a more pointed collar style etc.  Your tie can be understated or bright so long as you select the appropriate cufflinks and tie a knot to reflect the overall tone of your outfit.  As always, shoes and socks are a key feature of your overall presentation and should never be skimped upon.

If you’re meeting someone for the first time (an interview perhaps) the white shirt can be the perfect blank canvas to let your own personality shine because your audience will not be able to prejudge you or make assumptions about you based on the style of your clothes alone.

It’s great to wear a variety of different shirts during a working week but wearing a plain white shirt under a suit will give you a confidence boost.  We’d love to hear from you if you’ve noticed a difference when you wear a white shirt or if your feel differently towards colleagues or clients that are wearing one when you meet them.

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