The white dress shirt has long been an essential part of every man’s wardrobe, signifying his social class and wealth since the 19th century. Over the years, the classic white button-down has maintained it’s cool, sophisticated appeal thanks to its timeless versatility. With the rising popularity of this simple garment in women’s fashion came the evolution of the classic white shirt in terms of its design and what it stands for, shifting with the tides of social change and even being used to express political affiliation.
Early whites: At the beginning of the 19th century, the white shirt was a symbol of social class. While working-class members of society could not afford to have their clothes washed very often, the physical nature of blue-collar working conditions was not conducive to wearing or maintaining white clothing. Therefore, these social conditions led society to associate the colour with higher social status and wealth. In the 19th century, fashion was enshrined in social life, with the white shirt being worn under all other garments, with only the collar and the cuffs visible from the outside. Even these tiny portions of the shirt were then enough to claim a higher rank in social class. These shirts eventually evolved into the T-shirt of the 20th century.
Symbol of masculinity: Prior to the mid-1800s, the white collared dress shirt was worn by men in the workplace and was not widely accepted in women’s fashion. Thus, the garment quickly became associated with masculinity and power, a “uniform” of sorts that was seen as a form of armour for men who wanted to be identified as respectable, business-like professionals. The shape of the white dress shirt with its stiff, triangular collar and fitted cut was the perfect design for portraying the anatomy of masculinity. The colour white would soon become associated with morality, indicative of a man’s trustworthiness, piety and respectability as a member of society.
White versus blue: It wasn’t long before businessmen made the white, button-down dress shirt a required uniform for workers in the office environment. Even now, you can still see the influence of the white dress shirt in modern offices. These shirts have created a very visible distinction between the working classes; most notably in the coined terms “white-collar” and “blue-collar.” While white-collar is a term used to describe people who work in offices, the term blue-collar has become synonymous with manual labour. The term white-collar worker has come to have a much deeper meaning. Blue-collar workers came to resent religious clerics who used the white dress shirt as a symbol of innocence, referring to people who wore them as “white-collar stiffs” or just “stiffs.” The term connoted that people who wore white collared shirts were using them to create a facade to cover up their real social status.
Colour evolution: As the 19th century came to a close, the meaning of the white shirt was changing dramatically. The increasing availability and affordability of the shirt that was once a symbol of high status made it lose value, being slowly replaced by modern, simplistic versions of the iconic classic that focused on subtle differences in design such as style, cut, fabric and brand. At the same time, the stiffness of the white collared shirt, with its angular cuts, was exchanged for more relaxed fits suitable for formal attire. Movie stars and music icons started bringing their own interpretations to the classic apparel, with Prince wearing a white shirt with ruffles on the front, and The Beatles donning white shirts with ties.
Lady in white: Once the white button-down was no longer associated with social status and masculinity, it became fair game in fashion for women. Whereas men had utilized the white dress shirt for many purposes, women made it an iconic fashion statement. Actresses Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Katherine Hepburn were some of the first to try different variations of the good-ole classic button-down and the white collared shirt quickly became a symbol of fashion trends and modernity for women. In the film “Annie Hall,” Diane Keaton immortalized the white shirt in her role, while Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” and Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” also assumed this iconic fashion piece, wearing unique, white button-downs that became synonymous with fashion trends of the 1980s and 1990s film industry.
Political underpinning: In the same way that all colours have associative links with certain feelings and traditions, the colour white has unique psychological associations. While the colour white is, from a scientific perspective, an achromatic colour made up of an equal balance between all colours on the spectrum, it is also the symbol of balance, wholeness and completion. White has also been linked to purity, innocence, equality and new beginnings. These emotional and spiritual links with white have made it the choice of colour for many political icons past and present, especially female politicians. Most notably, Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate, proudly wore a white suit to the Democratic National Convention when she accepted the presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton followed in Ferraro’s footsteps, making the colour white the staple of her presidential campaign. Clinton wore several white outfits during her public appearances and patrons of Clinton wore white to the polls on the morning of Election Day to show their support.
Source: Daily Sabah