The white shirt is among fashion's most chic pieces. Pair one with black trousers, and you'll always find yourself among the best-dressed.
But, let's face it: Finding a version that hugs the bod in the right way and doesn't pucker between buttons can be as hard to pin down as perfect-fitting jeans.
In other words, this crisp classic, with all of its high-maintenance laundry requirements, isn't effortless. At. All.
Still, despite the white shirt's sartorial challenges, it will be hard to resist the urge to by a new one, two, or three. Because this fall, whether for work, for evening - or for those at Yom Kippur services wearing white - the staple is anything but basic.
This season, they are at their most interesting when starched and architectural. Think balloon sleeves, ruffled yokes, and asymmetrical bodices. Sultrier designs include cool, cold shoulders and romantic, off-the-shoulder shapes; lacier versions feature Chantilly trimmed sleeves and collars, or have bodices fashioned entirely from guipure.
"Our favorite essential has taken a very modern twist," said Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of global focus at Macy's. The white shirt is one of the season's must-haves, she said.
To help you find your style, we fitted three real women: Swabreen Bakr, 32, a size-4 freelance marketing and digital strategist, wants the staple to reflect her individual style. Kylie Flett, 33, a publicist who is a size 16, is focused on fit. Donna Storm, 58, a size-4 fitness trainer, wants to make sure her look is age-appropriate.
Pleats are tricky. Too many make you look wide. Don’t press and it’s a mess. We kept Flett’s pleats to a minimum so they wouldn’t overpower her. Bakr’s shirt — pleated but off the shoulder — is particularly unexpected. The pleats on Storm’s blouse are schoolgirl in nature but sophisticated in style.
Kylie Flett (left) wears an Eli Tahari pleated-yoke blouse, $298 at Bloomingdale’s. Swabreen Bakr (center) wears a KMJ Kate McHale Jensen top, $110 at Knit Wit. Donna Storm wears a Co shirt, $575 at Joan Shepp. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Stepping out of the box
When choosing a shirt that’s not a classic shape, go for a silhouette that complements your physique. For Flett, we chose a shirt that skims the body with fluted sleeves for drama. We did trendy lace for Bakr. And Storm’s balloon sleeves are ebullient.
Bakr, above, wears a Yasmina blouse, $275 at Bloomingdale’s. Storm, top right, models a balloon-sleeved Ralph Lauren top, $89 at Macy’s. Flett wears a bell-sleeved tunic, $54.50 at Loft.
Black embroidery stitched into Bakr’s shirt gives her youthful look a sultry energy. Storm’s blouse fastens at the neck to camouflage imperfections, but the tie gives it a cool, western vibe. And this trapeze-shape shirt compliments Flett’s curves, while the statement necklace makes the shirt pop.
It’s all in the details: Bakr (left) wears an embroidered Dorothee Schumacher shirt, $430 at Knit Wit. Storm (center) wears a silky Maje shirt with a bow, $220 at Bloomingdale’s. Flett wears an architectural Alfani top, $79 at Macy’s.
This version from Ann Taylor is well suited for all our models. Here, undergarments are key. T-shirt bras — as in no lace — provide smooth foundations. Flett wore a bodyshaper, and that stopped buttons from popping. Fashion tape can be a big help here, too. Wear the shirt tucked into trousers or over skinnies for a sleek, casual look.
Bakr, left, Flett, top right, and Storm show the versatility of a single white Ann Taylor shirt, $69.50 at Ann Taylor.
CREDITS: Styled by Mark Anthony Barksdale, Instagram @romanwarriorstyle Hair and makeup: Terrell Maurice, Instagram @terrellmaurice Special thanks to Pennsylvania 6, 114 S. 12th St., 267-639-5606, www.pennsylvania6philly.com. Clothing: Ann Taylor, 1713 Walnut St., 215-977-9336, www.anntaylor.com; Bloomingdale’s in King of Prussia, 610-337-6300, www.bloomingdales.com; Joan Shepp, 1811 Chestnut St., 215-735-2666, www.joanshepp.com; Knit Wit, 1729 Chestnut St. 215-564-4760, www.knitwitonline.com; Loft, 1729 Walnut St., 267-256-0690, www.loft.com; Macy’s, 1300 Market St., 215-241-9000, www.macys.com.
Despite the feminine extras, the roots of the white shirt are firmly planted in menswear.
The man's white shirt entered women's wardrobes for the first time in the 1860s, said Clare Sauro, a fashion historian and Drexel University's keeper of the school's Robert and Penny Fox costume collection.
"She tucked it into her skirt and put a little jacket over it," Sauro said. "This was the original shirtwaist."
In the 1890s, the white shirt appeared again in women's fashion as sportswear emerged and early suffragettes claimed the look.
"Not only did it have a starched collar and cuffs," Sauro said, "but she wore it with a man's necktie and bow tie and a men's-style hat."
As separates - especially pants - became a core part of women's wardrobes in the 1930s and '40s, white shirts became popular again. In a scene from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's, Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly character is wearing a borrowed man's tuxedo shirt, giving the piece its sexy persona decades before Carrie Bradshaw ever did.
In the 1980s, the white shirt - ruffled and bowed - found itself at the center of women's power dressing again. It was during that decade that Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré gave the shirt an architectural shape. (This year, the Phoenix Art Museum hosted an exhibit with 27 of Ferré's shirts.)
Since then, experimental fashion houses, from Comme des Garçons to Sacai, and specialty stores such as Anne Fontaine and White House Black Market, have built businesses around creating new constructions of the singular piece.
Today's renewed interest in the white shirt is fueled by the following fashion factors: First, its clean palette fits right into the minimalist wardrobe trend. Second, there is more consumer interest in good design. (Note: You may have to splurge - not just for good quality but also easy upkeep, unless you are willing to iron pleats and ruffles one by one.)
And, as silhouettes are shifting from bohemian to tailored, this season is demanding we invest in new basics, said Tuesday Gordon of Center City's Joan Shepp. For example, skinny pants will be replaced soon with full trousers. The most fashion-forward of us are layering white shirts under slip dresses.
"It's about finding your rhythm, your style, and expressing it through this classic," Gordon said.