It was created by our very own Thomas Mayes Lewin in 1898, and has only taken the world by storm since.
As Justin Bieber could tell you, tomato sauce is no friend of the white shirt. “Yes, I took my first date to a buffet restaurant,” the popstar once recounted. “Yes, I wore a white shirt. Yes, I got spaghetti.”
But the white shirt’s readiness to show the dirt was exactly the point: starting life as an undergarment, right up until the early-to-mid 20th century and the advent of the machine-washing, white shirts were pricey to wear as you had to change them daily and work hard to keep them looking crisp and white. A clean white shirt has become a badge of honour, proof that you’ve put a lot of work into maintaining a crisp appearance. Fast forward to today and the story hasn’t changed. Putting on a white shirt is an effortless way of showing the world you mean business.
Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, always believed a white shirt presented a ‘nothing to hide’ trustworthiness. In fact, many big companies recognise the way it symbolises professionalism and self-worth, and have insisted their staff wear white shirts as a result.
Another failsafe benefit of the classic white shirt is that very few men feel uncomfortable in a white shirt. It’s the more formal take on the undeniably cool white T-shirt, which James Dean as a grown-up Jim Stark might have worn if ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ had ever had a sequel. Yet, despite its ability to smarten up your appearance in the office boardroom, you don’t necessarily have to make the switch to a t-shirt to take things down a notch.
By simply leaving the top button undone, or opting for denim over suit separates, the white shirt is versatile enough to keep you looking casually cool from after-work dinners with colleagues to your holiday abroad, enjoying tapas on the Riviera. Considering its current status as an iconic item of simplicity and versatility, it’s no surprise that there is not a designer alive who doesn’t wish they had invented the white shirt. We have our very own Thomas Mayes Lewin to thank for that.
Unfortunately, it still doesn’t sit well with the sloppy eaters of the world, or the black suit and white-shirted gangsters of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (who no doubt discovered, when it came to laundry day, of blood-letting either). But when you know it is a surefire way of looking good, caution is a fair price to pay in order to enjoy menswear’s most iconic piece.