Where is She? Urban Archeology

Now that I am blogging, fall weekends are often quests to find urban landscapes that can be a backdrop for photos of clothes and that can help me tell my urban sentiment stories. It means I go to places I have been before and see them from a different perspective. This makes them fresh. It is a different kind of looking, a different kind of seeing. So as I head into DUMBO though I have been there so many times before, there is a kind of spring in my step, a different sort of anticipation and the knowledge I will see something new. My white shirt feels like a sail billowing on a ship that is flying into the wind.

Right now I have amassed a rather large collection of white shirts. As colors have fallen away from my wardrobe like leaves falling from trees and monochrome has become my palette, white shirts play a starring role. After many years of not owning a white shirt I now wear one almost every day. Perhaps I am nostalgic for the comforting presence of the nuns in my childhood, mysterious and revealing nothing in their black and white garb. Perhaps it is the consistency and feeling of belonging that came from wearing a white uniform shirt underneath a plaid that seems to now once again be in fashion. Or maybe black and white just looks really good with my skin and hair. Or maybe I can now afford exorbitant dry cleaning bills. Or maybe my daughter’s too old to cover me in throw-up or paint. Or maybe I have become less of a slob and can better curb my tendency to spill whatever I am eating or drinking on myself. Whatever the reason I find myself always on the hunt for a new and unique white shirt.

IF You Are Curious...

Apparently the oldest white shirt dates back to 3000 BC and was found in an Egyptian tomb. Right on trend it had a fringed neck and pleated sleeves. From a fashion perspective it walked its first runway show in Paris in a portrait of Marie Antoinette where it scandalously appeared in muslin and created quite a stir. This was possibly related to the fact that until the 1800’s white shirts were considered an undergarment only to be worn under jackets and coats. White shirts from the beginning denoted class and status as those who were wealthy did not work and so were less likely to stain and ruin the garment. During the Victorian era white shirts were linked to ideas of purity and cleanliness for both men and women. For many years collars and cuffs were the only parts of the shirt that were visible and for ease of cleaning these parts of the shirts were detachable.

As the industrial revolution changed the way people worked, white linen collars became a status symbol for the growing office class, hence the term, “white collar worker”. Following the increase of paid work for women in the office and in retail, tailored suits modeled after male attire included a white shirtwaist blouse. Perhaps the first white shirt icon appeared in the Gibson girl who personified new gender ideals and a break with Victorian repression. This girl represented freshness and independence and became a significant influence on the direction of fashion (see Brough, 2013). Once again finding it’s way back to the Paris runway in the 1920’s, Coco Chanel heightened the popularity of the white shirt when she introduced her loose white shirt, tailored pants and cardigans. Hollywood icons in the 30’s and 40’s like Katherine Hepburn, Eva Gardner, Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn helped to popularize the white shirt and it continued to appear in movie classics such as  “Pretty Woman” and “Pulp Fiction”. Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white portrait of Patty Smith in a masculine white shirt conveys the iconic status of both the artist and her shirt.

From the 70’s until now, classic American designers such as Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein and conceptual ones like Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela have reimagined and reinvented this fashion staple using different shapes, fabrics, embellishments and structures. Telling stories of gangsters, romantics, democracy, power, poverty and fragility, white shirts remain the blankest of screens for a designer’s fantastical projections.

Coda: “There is nothing like a white shirt to show the character of the one who wears it” Franca Sozzani

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