There's a lot more to the perfect white shirt than meets the eye – from the myriad of fabric choices to the collars chosen, some of the shirt world's most important names tell you why.
Four shirt aficionados weigh in on the merits of that most humble wardrobe staple – the white shirt
At a moment when the tie is struggling to find a life outside the boardroom and the t-shirt reigns supreme, the one constant in the wardrobe of men – and women – is the white shirt.
Slim and sharp at Dior Homme, soft and oversized at Yohji Yamamoto, a staple from the Gap or the perfect foil for a little black skirt at Azzedine Alaia (fashion's architect still hasn't given in to designing for his ready and willing male fan base), the white shirt theoretically transcends all style barriers and social classes – depending on cut, quality and construction, that is. We asked a number of shirt purveyors to share their ideas about the classic garment.
Turnbull & Asser
Though HRH the Prince of Wales is a loyal client and the granter of a royal warrant, London's Turnbull & Asser has been used to such patronage ever since its first shop opened in 1885. The fabled shirt maker is currently dressing Daniel Craig for his first outing as James Bond in 'Casino Royale,' but any sexy globetrotting spy would have his work cut out choosing shirt fabrics that run the gamut from classic poplins to Sea Island (so called because the stuff comes from Pacific Island farmers) and two-fold 200s that are gossamer-fine. Like men's suiting, shirting quality is classified numerically; the higher the number, the nobler the fabric. The best yarns are anywhere up to three miles long before they're woven, giving the cloth extraordinary fineness and strength. At Turnbull & Asser, all stitching is created using a single needle and is executed at exactly 17 stitches to the inch. Such consistency doesn't end there, however. Each front buttonhole, made for a real, ecologically sourced mother-of-pearl button, has approximately 160 stitches, compared to the average of 125 at less-exacting houses. While such measures are not exclusive to white shirts, at Turnbull even the colored numbers have a white-shirting detail: the house's much-copied butterfly gusset is sewn into the bottom of each side seam to increase durability. And shirttails are longer than normal to avoid unnecessary exposure of underwear.
All white cotton shirts, it's worth mentioning, are sewn with cotton thread. As Rowland Lowe-McKenzie, the house's communications director, says when the subject of synthetic threads and fabrics arises, "Goodness me – it would be like building a Rolls Royce and putting a cheap engine underneath the bonnet." For Mr. Bond, make that an Aston Martin.
A whole wall of white shirts awaits visitors to the third floor of Charvet on Paris's Place Vendôme. "There are people who only buy white shirts all their lives and come here and buy dozens at a time," explains manager Anne-Marie Colban. But the focused number of shirt styles and fabrics in the ready-to-wear shirt department is nothing compared to the legendary number of white fabrics available when the shirting becomes bespoke: between 300 and 400, at last count. Clients arrive with precise desires, but as Colban notes, "the customer is demanding, and we are demanding. That's why we work so well together."
26 measurements – across the chest from armhole base to armhole base, the distance between buttons, the circumference of the cuff, and so on – are considered in the creation of a bespoke shirt before notions such as monograms come into play. On white shirts the hand-embroidered monogram is usually in white, or possibly pearl gray, but one recent client, who had demanded black buttons, extended the theme with an elaborate black gothic swirl on the left double-cuff. American and Japanese clients regularly demand cuff monograms, while the French take theirs left of the third button and the Italians slightly beneath.
Geography influences white shirts in another way, too. Because the collars of Charvet shirts aren't internally fused to stiffen them (instead a free-floating stiffener provides much more comfort and a more elegant shape), ironing them requires a tiny bit more attention. Colban is used to seeing white shirts returned from the U.S. for repairs or collar replacement with telltale yellow stains. "You take your shirt to the laundry and they use three tons of starch on it," she exclaims, incredulously.
Lately, Charvet's tailors have been spending a lot of time trying to adapt the perfect white man's shirt to a particularly discerning female client: bust darts added and then subtracted, shoulder yokes restructured, the torso streamlined, the arms make narrower. Finally, an eighth prototype is ready for the customer to try. "I think eight is going to be the lucky number!" Colban says with a laugh.
In a black sea of breathtaking construction and studied deconstruction, the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto can always be relied on to turn to the white shirt to set his two-tone agenda. Whether worn oversized with baggy pants for men, or as a touchstone for androgyny in women's wear, soft and with a stiff springing bow collar under a tailcoat or morphing into a sweeping dress, the white shirt appears chez Yamamoto in a seemingly never-ending array of guises. To paraphrase the Japanese designer, the white shirt is the working mans wardrobe the world over: a person could wear that same one all week and on Saturday night wash it for Sunday best. Though he elevates it to Olympian heights, the democratic nature of the white shirt provides Yamamoto with a constant source of inspiration.
At Eglé in Paris, Régis Decour and Philippe Le Blan kit out their primarily 25- to 45-year-old clientele in a range of body-conscious classics. Pleat-front white shirts have regular collars instead of the traditional wing so that they can be worn open and paired with jeans. Speaking of which, Eglé debuts bespoke denim this fall.
In France, and retailing worldwide, Agnès B has adopted the white shirt as an indubitable signature, making her stores one-stop shops for chic Parisians – and those who wish to emulate them.
Since its foundation in 1902, J. Press has carved a niche as the only place for Ivy Leaguers, present and past, to go to get the perfect white button-down Oxford shirt.
More shirt-makers of excellence are concentrated on this street than on any other in the world. With names like Hilditch & Key, Turnbull & Asser, and New & Lingwood, London's Jermyn St. still holds its own as the home of the gentleman's shirt.