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The white shirt is no longer a basic staple, it's a major style statement

With the addition of playful embellishments, dramatic volume and deconstructed detailing, the 'new' white shirt has a daring personality

21 January 2018 - 00:00 By Nothemba Mkhondo
A design from the SiSi White Shirt Collection by local designers Cynthia Allie and Yasmin Furmie.
A design from the SiSi White Shirt Collection by local designers Cynthia Allie and Yasmin Furmie.
Image: Supplied

We all have that one item in our wardrobe that never loses its allure. For many, it is the crisp cotton button-down shirt that we keep grabbing from the hanger, no matter the season or occasion.

The recent evolution of the white shirt on the runway and in worldwide street style proves that the white button-down has transcended the boundaries of time, seasons and trends and evolved into a perennial wardrobe staple with endless stylistic possibilities.

Season after season, designers use their sartorial skill to redefine the meaning of fashion by reworking its fundamental pieces for new seasonal relevance.

Over the past few seasons, designers have turned their creative hands to the well-loved white shirt and amped-up the scale and upped the ante on the not-so-basic wardrobe essential. Its 2017/2018 iterations have rendered it a "new" must-have piece in every woman's wardrobe.

A design by Off White.
A design by Off White.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

At the core of the recent metamorphosis of the white shirt, the focus has been on deconstruction, playful proportion and embellishment. Designers have pulled apart the fundamentals of the iconic piece and reconstructed it in unexpected ways, such as mismatched and split seams, contrasting fabrication, architectural draping, dramatic volume and eye-catching detailing. The white shirt of 2018 has a daring personality - a stark contrast to its historical counterparts.

The stylistic history of the white shirt dates back centuries. From the days of Queen Marie Antoinette being painted in her chemise à la reine, an informal, soft cotton dress that was originally designed to be worn as an undergarment - a bold step towards minimalism and wearing shirting as outerwear - to the days when stiff white shirts with triangular collars and fitted cuts were a symbol of masculinity, wealth and power and were reserved for men in the workplace.

The fate of the white shirt veered in a new direction when it became more affordable, readily available and creatively designed. Gone were the days of it being considered restrictive 9-to-5 attire, and welcomed were the days of the white shirt as a fashion statement for men and women alike.

A design by Prabal Gurung.
A design by Prabal Gurung.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

The white shirt thereupon garnered its early popularity, being worn by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. By the 1980s, the presence of the white shirt in popular culture made a serious case for the versatility of the simple garment.

From Julia Roberts wearing an unbuttoned, oversized white shirt tied at the waist with rolled-up cuffs in Pretty Woman, to Uma Thurman smoking a cigarette wearing a pointed-collar, wide-cuffed shirt complete with cufflinks in Pulp Fiction. Then, in 1992, Vogue Magazine cemented the relevance of the white shirt with the cover of its 100th anniversary issue featuring 10 supermodels all dressed in unbuttoned white shirts that were tied at the waist.

Pre-2000s, the white shirt was a nod to the boys as it was predominantly oversized and minimal, with a "borrowed from my boyfriend" look. During this time, women took something that was previously masculine and often gave it a feminine twist by tying it at the waist and leaving it unbuttoned in order to reveal the décolletage. Now, in 2017/2018, the shirt comes in every shape, size and design, making it the ever more versatile style item every woman wants in her wardrobe.

When you look closely, the white shirt has come to mirror the defining trends of the moment, such as detailed embellishments and the off-the-shoulder and voluminous silhouettes that have ruled the runway over the past year. Trend forecaster WGSN attributes this to the recent rise in consumers' need for personalisation in fashion.

A design by Off White.
A design by Off White.
Image: Gallo/GettyImages

"The shirt, it used to be an office must-have, a little drab, something you had to wear, not something you wanted to wear. But recently, the little white shirt has had a makeover. Consumer desire for personalisation in clothing has seen shirts come with embellishment, embroidery, and even styled with only one shoulder on," says WGSN.

The white shirt can be seen as a metaphor for the greater fashion system and the consumer industry as a whole. The constant evolution of the garment signals the perpetual nature of the fast-fashion cycle, which is relentless in its pursuit and expectation of something new, on the part of designers and consumers alike.

However, the ever-changing fast-paced nature of trends on the runway means that everything comes full circle. Trends often work in equilibrium by ricocheting between opposite aesthetics.

For example, millennial pink has now been superseded by the audacious red trend. So perhaps we can expect the next iteration of the white shirt to return to the minimal and be stripped back to its essential parts.

In fashion nothing is ever really new, just updated for the now. The white shirt will always be the white shirt, just with a few added bells and whistles and embellishments according to the season and the trends. It will always be a blank canvas with endless possibilities. But for now, the style hero is all about standing out and making a statement.


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