Dark History of the Iconic White Shirts & How We Wear Them Today

Tuck it. Fold it. Roll it. Knot it. Crop it. Layer it.
Nothing says timeless and versatility quite like the white shirt. This quintessential wardrobe staple used to be a mark of the wealthy gentleman, but its significance has since evolved.
Did you know that the white shirt trend actually started from a really dark past?
Initially popularised by Marie Antoinette and her très chic girl gang in the 1700s, her preference for white cotton blouses basically built the foundation for the institutional slavery which lasted for centuries. Who knew one person’s choice in fashion could cause some of the worst crimes in all of humanity?
Her impact substantially transformed the cotton and clothing manufacturing industry, but the standard white shirt we’re familiar with today was still only worn by wealthy men until the 20th century.
 
By the 1920s however, designers like Coco Chanel worked to dismantle the barriers of gender and class, and produced alternative fits that were more contemporary - effectively carrying the white shirt into the territory of women’s fashion. Fun fact, the reason why the buttons on women’s and men’s shirts are on different sides is because back in the old days, wealthy women didn’t need to dress themselves as they usually had a female personal attendant to do that for them. Men’s shirt buttons were on the opposite side to make it easier for them to reach the weapon. So there’s no real purpose for the buttons to be on opposite sides but the tradition stuck and continues to this day.
The colour white was initially preferred by women to represent restraint, conformity, and feminine purity. Over time this notion would extend beyond outdated ideas about the female body and developed into a symbol of resistance - one which represented her dignified intellect and purpose.
In US political history, the white shirt has always been favoured by female politicians as a symbol of empowerment during iconic moments. A couple of examples include Shirley Chisholm becoming the first black woman elected to congress in 1968, and more recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina US Representative, when she was sworn into Congress, along with the first Native American and Muslim women - significantly changing the face of politics.
 
Shirley Chisholm Congress Election
 
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Sworn into Congress
 
On the flip side, women in Hollywood have adopted a diverse assortment of the collared, button-down white shirt. Its simplicity and versatility instantly made it into a symbol of modernism, and throughout the years it remains immortalised by many illustrious icons on the silver screens. Some notable actresses and movies include Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.
 
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’sJulia Roberts in Pretty WomanUma Thurman in Pulp Fiction
 

“If you ask me what I’d most like to have invented in fashion, I’d say the white shirt. Everything else comes after.” - Karl Lagerfeld

 
In today’s pandemic climate, the fashion industry’s supply chains are facing difficulties due to lack of demand, as consumers take a hit in their income and are mostly stationed at home. Hence why most apparel labels are beginning to limit their production to the basics, and we will start to see less and less variety in merchandise.
If style is something you love to embody even from within the comfort of your home, there is no reason to fret about these current limitations. We’re excited to show you 9 different ways you can style your classic white shirt, and we look forward to you pulling off these looks!
 
1) Suit up!
White shirts and suits are like Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny & Cher, or peanut butter & jelly - it’s a prime combo that can do us no wrong! Make a statement by pairing the lowkey white shirt with eye-catching colours and striking prints. If you’re aiming for something more subtle, your best friends are neutral tones like beige & sand.
Pro tip: Roll up your sleeves for a cooler take on this classic pairing!
 
beige suit with white shirtprinted suit with white shirt
electric blue suit with white shirtoversized black suit with white shirt
 
2) Layering, layering, layering
This is a realm of endless opportunities, and a conversation that could go on and on! There’s just something about layering that amplifies and elevates your personal style. Whether it’s placed underneath a dress, over a crop top, tucked under a cropped sweater, over a slip dress, cinched with an oversized statement belt, worn as outerwear; the possibilities are infinite.
 
white shirt over turtle neckjumper over white shirt
bustier over white shirtjumpsuit over white shirt
oversized white shirt over bandeau bramulti layering with ivory shirt and tanned statement belt  
 
3) Knot on the waist
While this trend seems to be obscure today, tying your shirt into a knot on the waist is a pretty quick way to upgrade your look on the spot! It can be a little tricky since the style relies on the fit and length of your shirt, but with some practise, you will be a connoisseur of shirt knots in no time!
 
white shirt with front waist knot
 
4) The contortionist
Let’s disrupt the balance for a moment and turn things around - literally! This switch-up appears effortless, but like every nifty skill, it does require some practise and being familiar with the shirt you’re working with. You will want to make sure the collar isn’t too high on the front neck so it doesn’t look uncomfortable. Button low at the back or even slip off one side of the shoulder to offset the front neck. You can also take it a step further by layering with a camisole or a strappy bralette with intricate back designs! If you’re feeling daring enough to take an alluring route but want to keep it tres chic, consider foregoing showy innerwear and drape a long necklace down your back.
 
necklace dangling on back neck, white shirt worn backwardsoversized white shirt worn at back
white shirt worn on back, knotted at waistfully buttoned white shirt worn backwards
 
5) Flowy pants & big skirts
The crisp white shirt generally exudes a very orderly serious business type of image, but it still can provide a lot of room to explore adventurous avenues. If you’re feeling bold, then dramatic silhouettes like a maxi flared skirt or a pair of long, flowy wide-legged palazzo trousers are worth considering. Go all out by opting for tutus and the theatre will have their red carpet rolled out for you!
 
white shirt paired with olive green full skirtcarolina herrera fall 2018 white shirt colourful skirts
red full skirt with white shirtwhite shirt black floor length skirt
 
6) Leather chic
Take the classic white shirt and turn it up a notch - with leather. Nothing else screams edgy like leather does. 
We personally do not encourage taking part in commercial activities that cause harm to animals, but some leather are actually byproducts of the meat industry. Faux leather or ‘vegan’ leather might sound better for the animals, but they actually have a bigger environmental impact than the real stuff. We’ll talk about this more in the future, but as consumers, we have the responsibility to question the source.
 
white shirt with panel leather skirtwhite shirt black leather pantswhite shirt long black leather skirt
 
7) Good old denim
Seriously, pairing one timeless piece with another? It’s a match made in fashion heaven! Bring on the skinny jeans, mom jeans, hemmed shorts, denim skirt, etc. Nothing could go wrong here!
 
white shirt denim pairing with stilettos Princess D white shirt denim lookoversized white shirt denim shorts pairing
 
8) White on white
You saw how AOC, a powerful woman of colour, flexed with the white-on-white ensemble, while making history for all of womankind. You know you wanna look that good and run the world too.
 
white on white - shirts & suitswhite shirt with white skirtwhite shirt with white pants
 
9) If you wear your heart on your sleeve, this is for you
Other than being one of the strategic places to spritz your favourite perfume, did you know that a woman’s wrists is considered to be one of her most feminine features? So if you’re looking to soften the traditionally male symbol that is the classic white shirt, simply roll your sleeves halfway or even just a third way up your forearm to reveal your wrists. Feel like showing more skin? Take one button lower than you’re normally used to, to reveal the clavicle. Not only will your perfume scent emanate efficiently, but when this style is juxtapositioned with a fashion article that is usually considered masculine, your femininity instantly shows off more than a dress possibly could!
 
white shirt denim lookwhite shirt button lowwhite shirt button low denim look
 
 
10) BONUS STYLING TIP: Accessorise, accessorise, accessorise!
Vogue editor Anna Dello Russo once applied her wisdom to describe the role of accessories, “They are an essential tool to give new life to what you already have in your wardrobe. Accessories are like vitamins to fashion: you should use them liberally as such.” And what is a better canvas than an unassuming white shirt to let your creativity run free?
 
Necklaces: The extremities you can play with here is endless. You can choose to don a large statement piece, or more refined styles to experiment layering with different lengths.
Earrings: No need to play small here. Go big, and ditch everything else.
On your hands: Rings and bracelets are underrated but can make you feel like a queen instantly! Just like the necklace, there’s two ways you can go about it here - pile on the chunky stuff, or go minimalist with the subtle stuff!
Sunglasses: For that extra protection on top of your SPF, with style.
Scarves: From all the prints (don't’ be afraid to go all out here) you could choose, to all the many different ways to tie a scarf (the abundant resources on Youtube are out there waiting to be seen), the possibilities are simply endless!
From stacking on a pile of chunky rings and bracelets, to layering strings of necklaces, to playing around with colourful scarfs, your OOTD can be enhanced in so many ways.
accessorise white shirt with gold chain necklaceaccessorise white shirt with red neck scarfaccessorise white shirt - stacking accessoriesaccessorise white shirtaccessorise white shirt
 
 
Between countless iconic moments in political history to pop culture to the fashion industry’s recurring need to return to the basics, the white shirt has taken on many forms and continues to thrive against the test of time.
Invest in our version of this versatile wardrobe staple - the Boss Shirt. Made from surplus material, our Boss Shirt is also designed to be nursing-friendly so you could juggle work, family and style.
 
The Iconic white shirt made to be nursing friendly
The Iconic white shirt made to be nursing friendly
 
We would love to see your take on the Boss Shirt, so tag us in your OOTD on Instagram!
 
 
 
About the Writer
Catherhea Potjanaporn Teoh is an internationally-recognised artist/photographer based in Kuala Lumpur. She has been using her art since 2006 to actively push the horizons on what beauty could look like, while simultaneously underscoring the social issues in Malaysia that need to be addressed. Eager to diversify her range of skills, she sometimes would deviate from her preferred medium of visual storytelling to words. Her photography can be found here.

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