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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.  

This idea of the white shirt as a representation and interrogation of the nature of labour in contemporary world can be read throughout fashion in different forms. Is it, for example, not a misreading to see this in Giambattista Valli’s Fall-Winter 2014 collection featuring evening skirts worn with plain white cotton shirts? They might point to a modern woman split between work and play as much as look back, if obliquely, to the chemise à la reine of Marie-Antoinette.


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’. 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. 

Brands and Lines dedicated to the Shirt and/or the White Shirt

Anne Fontaine


Comme des Garçons shirt


Carolina Herrera White shirt

White posture



Temporary Fashion Museum
Guus Beumer
Maureen Mooren

This project is part of the programme track Things and Materials and the folder Material innovation.

Fashion has quietly renewed the very idea of renewal by constantly selling the past as a future, thereby framing current reality. This contrasts sharply with the idea that renewal always stems from technological innovation.