I have an obsession with white shirts. It’s not just a case of ‘liking’ white shirts, it’s more that I find them calming, inversely pornographic (considering a white shirt’s inherent purity) and, when done well, an act of near perfect creation.
A lot of people think that a white cotton shirt is just a white cotton shirt. Two arms, cuffs and a collar stitched to a three piece body of aesthetic nothingness. Well, those people should bask in the asymmetrical complexity of a Yohji Yamamoto shirt, or the uniquely long cassock hem of Dries Van Noten’s subtly embellished beauty. The thing is, unless they are initiated into The Cult Of The White Shirt, all they will see is unimaginative Mike From Marketing, or a safely Uniqloed waiter sleepwalking his shift at Cafe Rouge.
In the 90s motoring journalists used to call the new breed of high performance saloon cars ‘Q cars’. It referred to the unassuming exteriors of autobahn leviathans like the BMW M5, the Audi S8 or the Mercedes 560 AMG. The term came from the clandestine British ‘Q Boats’ used to whopping effect in WWII. Unless you were working for the admiralty or similarly a dyed in the wool petrol head, you’d never know the difference between a Q Boat and a fishing vessel, a pant-wetting M5 and a soul destroying diesel 525 (and neither, presumably, would the Germans or the highway patrol).
This needing-to-be-in-the-know is only part of the Q Shirt’s appeal. It’s also a reaction to the overwhelming colour complexity of modern clothing, the lurid oranges and incandescent greens that are selected by the shadowy illuminati who dictate next year’s designer trends. I wear Comme Des Garçons white tunic shirts from 1992, slim fitting Margiela numbers from 2003; no one knows the vintage except the other freaks like me. The white is a whitewash, an act of total secrecy. No one knows my brand allegiances, my bank balance or my origins. It’s armour.
In his wonderfully fruity autobiography ‘My Dear Bomb’, Yohji Yamamoto talks about how his clothing is designed to protect the wearer from unwelcome prying eyes. His designs are the polar opposite of a close cut Dolce & Gabbana cocktail dress, designed to draw the eyes to the waist and bum. Although he was mainly talking about women, I have adopted this philosophy with gusto. 90% of the time I wear white shirts with black Yohji trousers: they render me sexless, neither gay nor straight, and entirely judged on my wits or my witlessness. It leaves me almost invisible, except to TITK (Those In The Know) of course. Add me to a gallery opening or a fashion week party and I’m the belle of the ball. My white shirt is admiringly mauled by Nicotine stained fingers and I feel like I’m attending a fascist rally in ’41, there’s such a notable absence of colour in the room.
All a white shirt possesses in order to prove its worth is it’s fabric, cut and construction, nothing more. In a industry where perceived differentiation is everything and the marketing dollar king, the great white shirt is the ultimate stealth luxury. Devoid of distortion or hyperbole, it’s just there. I’ll never forget that scene in 1986’s ‘9 And A Half Weeks’ when we finally see inside Mickey Rourke’s wardrobe: there’s just piles of immaculately folded white Hugo Boss shirts and identical grey suits. I’m pretty sure I exhaled a thirty second “coooooooollll” in admiration (for those of you under 30, Hugo Boss was once fashionable). In retrospect this was fairly OCD behaviour and supposedly a sign that all was not well with Rourke’s character, but thankfully that went completely over my head at the time.
Finding my first truly great white shirt was a fashion watershed for me. The Jil Sander masterpiece in question bubbled and eventually burst it’s collar from fanatical raw-skinned bleaching, its owner starkly aware that it was going to take a bottle of chloroform and a hostage situation to get his fiancée to allow him to buy another. But of course procure another (a gross understatement if there ever was one) I did.
And what of a white shirt’s purity? I’m a 42 year old man and a fairly battle-scarred one at that. I feel like I’ve seen too much, imbibed too much, thought too many questionable thoughts and acted on too many questionable impulses. However, I don my uniform (for that’s what it is) and I’m temporarily pure again; walking down some metaphorical aisle in some imaginary church in mid 50s New Zealand, unsullied by the Internet, by too many late nights and too much freedom. It’s me putting some aesthetic shackles on myself, reigning myself in and allowing my actions to do the talking, opposed to letting loud mass market fashion shout my entrance into every room. I also love taking it off, looking at the stained cuffs and collar, seeing the city’s filth and squalor absorbed into my armour, leaving me unsullied like the outer layer of a spent cigarette filter. In essence, the white shirt for me is a delicious tonic to the modern malaise, an escape from brand tribalism, and an absolute bastard to keep clean.