Styling ALEXANDRA ASSIL
Story DURGA CHEW-BOSE
"A perfect white shirt is keynote. Categorical. Control that comes with ease or ease that springs from control."
I am thinking about an interview Isabella Rossellini gave for “The American Masters” episode about Richard Avedon, which aired on PBS in January 1996. I am thinking specifically about her shirt. She is wearing a white button down, presumably men’s. The shirt’s collar pushes out with clean elegance from Rossellini’s pinstripe double-breasted blazer. The shirt’s collar is effortless and effortful, both. The shirt’s collar is a swan. A snowy mountain region around her neck. Heart-shaped where the collar’s sharp points connect at the tip. She speaks about Avedon in her typically modulated voice, fluttering her eyes as she smiles, conducting her words with her hands. Her posture, like her shirt, is effortless and effortful. At one point, she explains to the interviewer how the slightest gesture transforms the model’s relationship to the camera. Rossellini flips up her blazer’s collar and pushes down her shoulders. She pinches her index finger with her thumb to mimic the significance of “small details.” She is magnificent. But when is she not? She is a master of adjustments which explains her status as the matron saint of the white shirt. Her catalog of references is vast: sharing a plate of spaghetti with her terrier, Macaroni; looking serene and sensual for photographer Michel Comte; smiling with her teeth; smiling with a sunhat. Rossellini’s fluency in white shirting is a matter of comfort but can also be explained by inheritance. She credits her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and her Swedish family, for passing down a taste “for order and cleanliness.” Whatever the reason, in my mind, the white shirt belongs to Rossellini. How she wears it not like a uniform, but as a declaration of contentment turned to a peculiar dial. It fits her. It’s resourceful. It fine-tunes the room.
A perfect white shirt is keynote. Categorical. Control that comes with ease or ease that springs from control. A perfect white shirt can be premeditated (ironed and on call) or a shortcut (wonderfully unremarkable in how quickly it provides a frame). A perfect white shirt is perfect for DIY (tied at the waist like Sade on stage, like Gwyneth as Marge in Mongibello, like Baby Houseman in Dirty Dancing). A perfect white shirt is the main event (worn without pants) or mirepoix (pretty much unseen aside from the cuffs or a collar cutting through layers of cashmere and coat). A perfect white shirt is dynamite (see: Sharon Stone at the 1998 Oscars dressed in Vera Wang and The Gap; Uma Thurman at the 2022 Oscars in Bottega Veneta).
A perfect white shirt has the potential for deadpan or something more exaggerated. How optic is the white? How puffed the sleeve? In Timothy Greenfield-Sanders 1981 portraits of Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning author wears a pleated, silk georgette tie-neck shirt. Morrison is holding a pipe. Morrison is holding our gaze. The shirt’s details are decorative—perfectly decorative and fun—meeting Morrison’s performance for the camera in a flowing manner, like cursive. There is of course another image of Morrison, taken in Albany four years later. This one is the one. Morrison is wearing big silver hoops, a blazer, white shirt, and black tie loosely knotted around her rumpled collar. She is leaning back in her chair with command and affluence, issuing style with every aspect of her being. Morrison’s white shirt is negligible, which makes it...perfect.
A perfect white shirt is immediate, examples of which seem almost involuntary. Ask anyone. For costume designer and true-blue New Yorker, Miyako Bellizzi, the image of a woman wearing a crisp white men’s button down conjures notions of promiscuity “because of what it insinuates in scenes from films.” She cites Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Katharine Hepburn more generally. Both Hepburns certainly had their way with the white shirt. For Audrey, it was fizz and jazz, and the cat-like appeal of a collar that was popped or pressed or praised with a silk scarf. For Katharine, it was serious stuff and casual stuff and leave-me-alone stuff. It was also, so clearly, summer stuff. What is it about Katharine Hepburn in a white shirt that suggests wood shingle siding and well-worn sandals?
Speaking of summer, the actress and writer Hari Nef shares a lesson she learned from her friend, the writer and critic, Sarah Nicole Prickett. “The first summer we spent on Fire Island, [Sarah] taught me—by example of course—that an oversized white Oxford is non-negotiable in any suitcase. It’s generous and cunning as a top, wry but a little tarty as a short dress with heels. It’s the line from Margiela to Carrie Bradshaw.”
For Recho Omondi, host of “The Cutting Room Floor” podcast, Angelina Jolie’s wardrobe in Mr. and Mrs. Smith is seminal; the shirt that launched a thousand ships etc.. Bookseller and former editor of Dazed, Isabella Burley, references Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. “White shirt, vanilla milkshake, and a cig.” It’s been nearly three decades since the film’s release and still, Uma’s shirt, her double cuffs and black enamel links, epitomize the feeling of going to the movies. As Mia Wallace, she was instantaneous because she made available to us the totally electric charm of wearing a white shirt and doing the Twist. It’s funny, while the reference seems obvious, even plain, it approximates the impact of a white shirt done right. All motive and glare, unconcealed and legible.
Fashion editor Romany Williams specifies the popularity of white shirts in late ’90s and early aughts rap and R&B. “They were a symbol of wealth, sex appeal, cool, like Diddy’s White party. They were oversized and billowing in the wind.” Williams remembers the video for Tyrese’s “Lately,” B2K’s “What a Girl Wants,” and the album artwork for Missy Elliot’s Da Real World. The stylist and fashion consultant Julie Ragolia imagines the white shirt not as a singular garment, but as an amalgam. “Iconic images play in my mind like a speed reel,” she says. “The white shirt is where Diane Keaton, Tilda Swinton, Truman Capote, Errol Flynn, and myself all gather at the same garden party of my mind.” Ragolia registers the white shirt’s secret power. Has any item of clothing been more suited for the outdoors? Has any item of clothing been more attentive to a breeze? The white shirt, as Ragolia notes, is best worn al fresco.
BALENCIAGA Kick cargo pants; ARC'TERYX Konseal AR shoes.
For the designer, Vejas Kruszewski, there’s only one answer: Helmut Newton’s 1995 photo of Sigourney Weaver. She’s soaking wet. She’s smoking a cigarette. Her white shirt is sleeveless and see-through—its center front seams somehow synchronizing with Sigourney’s sharp jawline and brow bone. There is no shirt without Sigourney; she gives it its status and shape. She makes it strange.
Similarly, the designer Dylan Cao, whose label Commission (along with co-designer Jin Kay) finds its focus in strong sartorial storytelling, summons his early days as a scrawny kid. “[The words] “white shirt” immediately brought me back to uncomfortably shuffling my own one-size-too-big uniform shirt into my pants while getting ready for school. I remember it vividly because my father would always iron it the night before and I hated how bulbous the shirt was on the back once tucked in. I would spend half an hour trying to distribute it around my waist.”
The story of Cao’s uniform has—it’s very possible—informed Commission’s design ethos in relation to shirting. There is nothing bulbous or disagreeable about a Commission shirt. Their codes create handsome lines. Their muse is uncomplicated: a friend, a mother, the potential of a shirt with smart and sporty cut-outs.
When I ask the fashion writer Rachel Tashjian for her unmediated thoughts, she quotes the lyrics to “The Oogum Boogum Song” by Brenton Wood. “It’s about a woman who casts a spell on a guy mostly through her super cool and sexy clothes.” And you wear that cute mini skirt with your brother’s sloppy shirt, I admit it, girl, that I can dig it. “I always pictured an enormous white button down with frayed cuffs,” says Tashjian, who realizes as she shares the image, how unconfirmed it is, how imagined. For Tashjian, the reference is entirely fiction. But is it? The hypothetical white shirt is, perhaps, more intuitive than not. A sempiternal garment that suits so many occasions, even the make-believe.
For the painter Sam McKinniss, J.C. Leyendecker’s Arrow Collar Man comes to mind. That or, he adds, “the fact that most men also wear a white ribbed tank top as an undershirt,” which McKinniss ranks as the most perfect garment ever invented. Because it feels related or of potential interest to the painter, I share with McKinniss one of my favorite anecdotes about shirting. It concerns the poet, Frank O’Hara. His friend, the novelist and playwright, Lawrence Osgood, once said of the poet: “Clothes like Frank.” They seemed to fit O’Hara “as if [they enjoyed doing the job].” Even better is how O’Hara wore his clothes. According to Osgood, O’Hara would make two pleats in his shirt before tucking it into his trousers. It was a trick O’Hara learned in the Navy to keep the cloth taut around his torso. Regardless of how much he moved around throughout the day, O’Hara’s shirt remained secure—stubbornly, squarely, in place.
That’s the thing about a perfect white shirt—it’s up to the wearer to conspire with it. It’s up to the wearer to proceed with caution when deliberating on how unbuttoned, how untucked, how starched or secretly cinched. Maneuvering the white shirt is usually a matter of practice, or in O’Hara’s case, a matter of keeping things snug. His two-pleat trick, like a conversational detail from one of his poems. It’s beautiful. It’s about getting ready in the morning. It’s about observance and a way of life. O’Hara’s two-pleat trick is like a single flower in a vase or a fried egg first thing or your favorite painting waiting for you in the permanent collection.
Set Design JAMES RENE
Makeup HOLLIY SILIUS
Hair LAUREN PALMER-SMITH