The allure of the white shirt

It is possibly the most timeless piece in your wardrobe

“Florals for spring? Groundbreaking,” famously scoffed Meryl Streep as fashion editor Miranda Priestly in the epic film The Devil Wears Prada. Perhaps her team should have taken a cue or two from India where we celebrate Holi, or the first day of spring, wearing white (and later dousing it with coloured powder).

Nothing spells summer out loud than the quietest item in your closet: the white shirt. With temperatures scalding at nearly 39 degrees in Mumbai, the most sensible thing I did was scavenge all my white shirts from wherever they had been buried all of the festive months. I attempted to count how many white shirts I owned, and made it to well over a dozen. It’s a humble number, I assure you, as the white shirt is possibly the most timeless piece in your wardrobe.

Its origins can be traced to ancient civilisations. In Rome, men of high social worth wore linen tunics of a natural white colour. Renowned British Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie found a white linen shirt from a First Dynasty tomb in Tarkhan, an Egyptian cemetery located 50km south of Cairo. It dates back to 3000 BCE, making it the world’s oldest preserved white garment. Petrie’s discovery even has pleats on the shoulders and sleeves, and was form-hugging, to slim the wearer’s frame.

From Zara | Courtesy Zara From Zara | Courtesy Zara

In early Europe, the white shirt became an important status symbol of the wealthy aristocrats. The pure white colour indicated a higher class, signifying the wearer could afford to wash his clothes often. In the days before air-conditioning, white shirts allowed the wearer to be cooler. But even by the late 19th century, the white shirts separated the distinguished rich gentleman from the working class. Interestingly, women began wearing shirts around this time, too. In 1860, American and European women began to wear the Garibaldi shirt, which was red at first, symbolising the freedom fighters under Italian revolutionary Guiseppe Garibaldi.

The white shirt today is the most democratic item. It has been shown on the runways of Louis Vuitton, Dior, Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Hermes and other ultra luxury labels down to Savile Row’s impeccable tailors. High street giant Zara makes a lot of its profit selling white shirts, and ensures they have a few copycat designs on their rack all year round. And the clothing bazaars of Mumbai are lined with hangers showing off pristine white cotton shirts for “Only Rs100”.

That said, a good quality white shirt is perhaps the hardest item to construct. It may look simple, but to find one that’s form-fitted, well-tailored, is made of high quality cotton or linen, is comfortable, and looks stylish—it’s a tall ask of an item of clothing that is considered the most basic. After all, the more minimal an item is, the more glaring its flaws become.

In India, we have found the most clever uses for a white shirt. It’s absolutely flawless when worn over black trousers (my favourite silk white shirt is worn with chiffon black flare pants from Shanghai Tang). White shirts over blue jeans are never boring. We also wear them over our gorgeous handloom cotton saris (perfect with a blue shibori dye) and sneakers, a vivid skirt or lehenga. I have seen so many formal white shirts worn over Benarasi lehengas or farshi pyjamas. They are beyond state borders, too; Haryanvi grandmothers wear them over their salwars while smoking beedis, and Malayali men wear them over their crisp mundus. White weddings have also seen shirt-inspired gowns or tuxedos for brides.

I think I may need to buy a dozen more this summer.