A slightly crumpled white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, an untied narrow black tie, skinny black pants and a jacket thrown over her shoulder: Patti Smith stares at the photographer in this portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, taken in 1975 and used on the cover of her debut album Horses. Although it is posed, the picture uses natural light and exudes a simplicity that is unusual in the music industry of the 1970s. The habitual codes of fashion, gender and music are muddled, and the white shirt plays a central role in this: timeless and androgynous, pure and absolute. Smith once remarked that the cover reminded her of the French poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, two important sources of inspiration for her at the time. But there is also something of the Balzac of 1842, caught on a Daguerreotype in this portrait: the same hand on the heart, right shoulder forward and the crumpled shirt that evokes in his portrait the activity of writing as work. The Horses cover, in short, concatenates references and associations that together would raise enough issues to write a history of the white shirt from the perspective of 1975.
Fashion’s desire to go ‘back to basics’ periodically returns in times of crisis. Is it a surprise then that the white shirt, “the ultimate wardrobe staple” as magazine Elle called it in 2014, is currently enjoying a comeback, one of many? It is tempting to ask whether this might be a sign of conservatism? Or are there other reasons for this periodic return? And which values does it embody, what history does it rework?
Fragments of a History
In its different incarnations throughout antiquity (the Egyptian kalasaris, the Greek chiton, the Roman tunica manicata) the shirt is a unisex undergarment. Over time it becomes gender-specific and more sophisticated. In the early sixteenth century, the shirt lengthens along the arms and the neck to create collars and cuffs, and these grow in importance and sophistication in the European Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age. Until the nineteenth century, the shirt is mainly an undergarment, for men and women, and the fineness of the cotton along with the addition of lace trimmings, which are visible under dresses and suits, make it more precious. Whiteness denotes wealth, probity, and respectability, although these characteristics are somewhat challenged by Marie-Antoinette’s pioneering, in 1779, of what will quickly be called the ‘chemise à la reine’. Here, the undergarment becomes a simple cotton dress worn with a colourful silk sash around the waist, and a minimum of ruffles. It anticipates the neo-classical Empire style of clothing of the Napoleonic era and the white dresses that look back towards Roman antiquity. The chemise à la reine is an important garment in that it transgresses the boundaries of the private and the public, by turning underwear into outerwear.
While the black suit characterises men’s clothing in the Paris of the nineteenth century, this striking daguerreotype showing the author of La Comédie Humaine in 1842 is a rare instance of a writer captured in such unkempt clothing. It is on a par with Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac in his dressing gown. Both images, which play with the notion of outside and inside, public and private, also foreground Balzac 's intense and exhausting activity. Balzac poses not as a bourgeois or an aristocrat, but neither is he a manual worker: the white dress shirt here becomes the uniform of the writer.
The phrase ‘white collar’ only appears later, in the early 20th century, in order to differentiate clerical workers from factory workers wearing ‘blue-collar shirts’. These phrases show the extent to which the white shirt is contemporary with the intensive industrialisation and bureaucratisation of the western world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The connotation of work never ceases to exist, but in different manifestations: The white shirt, in other words, denotes, often in unspoken ways, different kinds of work throughout the twentieth century.
With the greater similarity of men and women's wear and with female employment becoming commonplace in the years during and following the First World War, the shirt, in its feminine incarnation of the blouse becomes a wardrobe staple for European women, worn with a skirt suit.
Emancipation through professional activity is one of the connotations of the white shirt as it is picked up by Hollywood in the 1920s. An attribute of the working girl, the egalitarian aspect of the white shirt becomes prevalent when it is adopted by some of the stars that privilege a masculine/feminine look: primarily Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn. The modernity of Brooks is clear from a juxtaposition of her portrait with a portrait of architect and designer Eileen Gray taken around the same period.
In other instances, Hollywood sentimentalises or theatricalises the white shirt. Worn by Marlene Dietrich in a more feminine version, in combination with a men’s suit and tie. On Katherine Hepburn in the 1938 film Holiday, it evokes the ingénue and her independent spirit. Visually the white shirt responds well to the lighting used in Hollywood movies. In the 1930s it also serves to promote the emancipatory image of the modern independent and working American woman. Next to the sophisticated outfits created for the cinema, the plain white shirt affects an allure of democratisation of fashion.
When it appears in 1961 on Marilyn Monroe in a scene from John Huston’s Misfits - a film set in the Midwest in an almost exclusively male environment - the white shirt’s androgynous appeal is transformed into a highly sexualised attractiveness: a curvaceous Monroe wears a simple white shirt with jeans, an outfit that contrasts abruptly with the overtly feminine printed dress she wears in other parts of the movie.
Marguerite Duras in 1950 exhibits, an altogether different way of posing male–female relations. Seduction here is subdued, replaced by the confidence of the Parisian writer smoking a cigarette and facing the photographer with none of the coyness of a Hollywood star.
Boys and Girls and Bankers ... and a French Intellectual
After the colourful and glitzy years of psychedelic, hippy and disco fashions, the white shirt returns in the mid 1970s. Patti Smith’s Horses album cover is almost exactly contemporary to David Bowie’s Thin White Duke, a character clad in a white shirt and impeccable three-piece suit that appears in the album Station to Station (1976). Both perform androgynous versions of the shirt. This moment marks the start of the white shirt as the unisex element in the realm of fashion. French ready-to-wear designer Agnes b opens her first store in 1975, and offers, along with jersey cardigans and stripped shirts, plain white shirts, all conceived as the emblems of a new minimal day wear for men and women alike.
Bowie’s version of androgyny evokes Weimar era cabaret life, while Patti Smith claims a literary heritage that is found again at the same epoch in the public persona of young ‘new philosopher’ Bernard Henry Levy. Levy, who, after he publishes La Barbarie à Visage humain in 1977, soon becomes a public figure. His unbuttoned white shirt becomes a uniform that marks a distance from the traditional academic in suit and tie. His sartorial choice - which has remained consistent to this day - identifies a literary heritage (Balzac, encore) while its open buttons and rolled sleeves mark his involvement in public life and independence from bureaucratic institutions and also subtly nods towards the intimacy of the shirt as under garment.
Affirming a contrast with punk and other street fashions, the late 1970s sees the return and affirmation of the ‘preppy look’ of which the Oxford shirt is an essential feature. A white, pristine and entirely buttoned up shirt is then adopted in a tongue-in-cheek way by musicians such as David Byrne and Bryan Ferry. The subversive aspect of this style is best understood if one remembers how Bowie would later claim that during the period of the Thin White Duke, he lived essentially on a diet of ‘red peppers, milk and cocaine’.
Women's Wear Daily: If you could have invented one garment, what would it be, and why?
Rei Kawakubo .: “I would have liked to invent the plain white shirt, with a skirt and pants to go with it." (WWD, 19 November 2012)
In the 1980s Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons) follows up on this androgynous, cool, look by foregrounding white shirts in her collections. In this 1987 photograph, Peter Lindbergh, who ion other occasions has evoked his attraction to the white shirt, is seen pursuing a collaboration with Kawakubo that started in the preceding years. Set on the beach in Le Touquet, this image, while evoking a Proustian atmosphere – thanks to the high-waisted trousers – also recalls the aesthetics of German Neue Sachlichkeit. There is something of the cool literariness of a Patti Smith, as well as a unisex character that also comes from the reference that can be discerned to August Sander’s Young farmers of 1914. In recalling Sander’s photograph of a world in transition, of farmers dressed as city boys, Lindbergh and Kawakubo frame the white shirt in a context of white-collar labour and its metamorphoses in the rampant capitalism of the late 1980s (Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is released in 1987, the same year as this photograph). Reinventing the codes of masculine and feminine fashion, Comme des Garçons also seems to be interrogating the nature of work itself and how it can be represented through sartorial codes. The architect duo Diller + Scofidio follows up this reflection on labour several years later in an installation at the 1998 Venice Architecture Biennial.
In his 24 hour performance piece Mount Olympus, Jan Fabre pares down costume design to bare essentials: white cotton sheets, torn, draped, folded and tied over naked bodies make up the entire range of costumes used throughout the performance, for every character in each story. In many instances the dancers tie or tear pieces of fabric themselves and dress or undress on stage, as they work their way through the corpus of Greek tragedies that form the basis of the piece.
While most evidently the white sheets recall the Greek chiton, the ancestor of the white shirt, Fabre’s radical costume choice also evokes an idea of the white shirt as a blank canvas: a light, plain support on which any story could be written, any dreams dreamt, any life lived. In this respect, showing the making of the costume on stage, with a strong DIY aspect, and exposing the incredible versatility of the material is on a par with the recent increase in the development of specific brands and fashion lines devoted to the white shirt.
While those brands often emphasise the craft of making, they bypass something that Fabre underlines: the idea of creative work, which is associated to the expression of the individual. Just as the writer, since Balzac, fuses identity with activity by being represented ‘wearing’ a blank page, the white shirt in the era of dematerialised labour may well carry, in a subliminal way, an invitation to act.
Sources and Further Reading
Prescod, Danielle. ’19 Not-so Basic White Shirts’. Elle.com. undated (1 comment dated October 2014)
Remaury, Bruno. Dictionnaire de la mode au 20 e siècle. Editions du Regard, 1996.
Socha, Miles, ‘Rei Kawakubo: Exclusive Q & A’, Women’s Wear Daily. 19 November 2012.