Pale and interesting

It began this time last year, during awards season. At the Golden Globes, among the legions of actresses and starlets baring their lightly tanned and firmly toned flesh in satin and sequins, was Tilda Swinton in an impeccable white shirt from Jil Sander teamed with a long cream skirt. The white shirt has been on the rise ever since.

Indeed, it is hard to think of a spring/summer collection that didn’t feature a white shirt or 20; most of the Sander show seemed to involve a play on the garment, with nurse-like white outfits, white shirt dresses and fresh, starchy white cottons. There was a multitude of variations at Céline – including sleeveless, collarless and peplum versions; sleeveless, shawl collared and silk at YSL; and big boxy boyfriend styles at Marc by Marc Jacobs.

But why the white shirt and why now? Some fashion experts say it’s because classics always seem like a more worthwhile investment during difficult times. “We do believe that classics come back during a recession,” says Claudia Scala, vice-president of womenswear and childrenswear at Brooks Brothers, whose shirts are worn by Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet, model Alek Wek and actress Diane Keaton. Brooks makes a “miracle” non-iron white shirt (£89) from strong-yet-soft, immaculate cotton. Scala says: “A classic white shirt is a timeless piece and will never go out of style. It goes with any colour, works in any season, flatters most figures, is easy to care for and pairs with denim as effortlessly as it does with velvet.”

Professional women who wear white shirts for work cite another reason. Jemima Lamburn, a risk analyst at Barclays Capital, says: “I think the fashion houses eventually saw the light and realised that people still spending money on their clothes tend to be those still employed, and usually in traditional, fairly conservative lines of work – ‘cool’ jobs are the first to go in a downturn. Finally in the shops we’re seeing clothes we want to wear at work.”

April Glassborow, buying and merchandising manager for womenswear at Harvey Nichols, says: “We’ve bought white shirts this season from Céline, Alexander McQueen, Haider Ackermann, Chloé, Christopher Kane, Marc Jacobs, The Row, Jil Sander and Alaïa.” Sarah Rutson, fashion director of Lane Crawford, adds: “Céline’s version is a best seller, the tux shirt that’s collarless and slightly frayed.”

Holli Rogers, fashion director at Net-a-Porter, says: “White shirts are a wardrobe staple.” The online fashion retailer sells so many white shirts that they are considered a category of their own (like skirts and coats), which may be why certain brands have become specialists in the area, such as French shirt maestros Equipment or UK designer Margaret Howell, who is known for her beautifully understated classics.

“I favour Prada for white shirts,” says solicitor Annie Sutton. “They have a very good cut, are never boring, and they’re made from great fabric.” Cos is also a popular choice for modern minimal classics, and it includes a white shirt (£35-£55) in each season’s collection.

Ultimately, however, when it comes to white shirts, the distinguishing marks are in the details. Designer Erdem, for example, says: “For spring/summer I used an Italian cotton poplin with tiny laser-cut holes [£475]. It was cut in a slightly boxy shape – quite boyish and relaxed.” J Crew uses high quality Thomas Mason Italian cottons (from £123), and Brooks Brothers uses an 80s/2 thread count cotton to give its white shirts a “soft luxurious handle”. Buttons, pocket placement, colour and size of stitching also make a difference, not to mention transparency.

“Fabric is an issue,” says Sarah Jones, an associate director of Goldman Sachs. “I would avoid see-through fabrics and lace at work. And never wear a black or red bra under a white shirt.”

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