Pull Your White Collar

Nothing says ‘professional’ like a crisp, white shirt. EXEC pays homage to this timeless classic

By Madhurima Ray

When revolutionary American author Upton Sinclair coined the term ‘white collar’ as the distinguishing mark of a professional man in the 1930s, the odds are that he wasn’t aware that he had immortalised himself in the history of power dressing. Sinclair’s observations were based on the sartorial rules of the day, which dictated that men wear a collared white dress shirt when conducting business.

Almost a century later, the white shirt continues to be a symbol of professionalism. There’s something about a man in a crisp white shirt that commands attention – in a way that’s as subtle as the quiet elegance of the garment itself. It never overpowers its wearer; its clean lines and simple aesthetics denote its wearer is a person who dresses for himself, and isn’t one to be ruled by the fickleness of fashion.

The white shirt has always been associated with power, in the boardroom and elsewhere. Jaws dropped when Coco Chanel shed the confines of her corset and donned a loose white shirt instead, a move that went a long way in empowering women at the time. Interestingly, many parallels can be drawn between Chanel’s LBD and the white shirt. Both are iconic, timeless and garments that speak volumes about its wearer without having to shout to be heard.

The white shirt serves as the link between the disparate worlds of fashion and politics, and the thread of business running through both. The common ground where this meeting takes place? Magazine covers. When Time announces its ‘Man of the Year’, chances are high that the designated person’s clothing of choice is a white shirt, topped with a suit. The covers of style publications exhibit designer creations, but from time to time, fantastical outfits are discarded in favour of the simplicity of the white shirt. The most noteworthy example dates back to 1992, when American Vogue’s resident editor cum demigod, Anna Wintour decided to feature nine supermodels in white shirts on the front cover of the 100th anniversary special of the magazine.

One of the most important characteristics of a white shirt is that it’s a blank canvas onto which the wearer’s personality can be projected. How one wears the white shirt is a powerful statement about the wearer. After all, there’s a huge difference between the man who wears his shirt with a classic pinstripe suit and one who styles it with, say, a quirky cartoon print tie. The white shirt serves as the medium to showcase an antique pair of cufflinks, a bold tie, or even a new pair of spectacles. It goes with almost any suit of any colour, and its versatile nature makes it the perfect fit in any executive’s wardrobe.

There is no perfect white shirt. The key to find one that flatters lies in the fabric, cut and shade of the shirt. Once an ideal match is found, it marks the beginning of a relationship between the shirt and its wearer that soon proves to be as long lasting as the exalted position the shirt has enjoyed since the time Sinclair penned the term that began it all.

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