“They make me feel secure. When I don’t know what to wear, I choose a white shirt.” So said the Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera, speaking in 2013 on the launch of a collection dedicated exclusively to the crisp, collared button-up. Reliable and effortless, the shirt has been women’s go-to ever since they entered the workforce in large numbers in the early 20th century, and needed an alternative to restrictive bodices. Its roots as a comfortable workwear staple explain its relevance this season. Professional without being uptight, comfy yet attractive, the shirt is the perfect garment for settling into the part-time office, part-time WFH lifestyle.
The spring/summer collections were in agreement: if in doubt, wear a shirt. Many designers mixed elements from loungewear and workwear to create a new high-low aesthetic (The New York Times called it the birth of “workleisure”), and shirting was the backbone of this sartorial mash-up. In characteristic maximalist style, Gucci offered a playful take on “back-to-the-office” dressing, with shirts in work-appropriate tones layered underneath tiger-adorned sweater vests. At Saint Laurent, classic crisp white Cuban collar shirts were styled underneath black belted jumpsuits, in a nod to old-school officewear. Loewe presented a polo-inspired shirt in sumptuous black styled with loose-fitting black trousers and trainers.
Others came in cheering jewel-toned colours: Valentino’s oversized styles were cast in shades of parma violet and hot pink with neat black buttons; The Row had a loose, long-line shirt in deep tangerine; and Nanushka offered a deep-olive-green shirt and two shirt dresses, one in egg-yolk yellow for daytime lounging. “The shirt felt like the perfect silhouette for a collection when comfort and function is more important than ever,” Sandra Sandor, Nanushka’s founder and creative director, tells me.
Shirting collaborations and capsule collections have also prevailed recently. When cult Notting Hill fashion boutique Aimé decided to launch its first in-house line in September, it opted to open with eight classic shirts in tones of sage green, shell pink and sky blue. American denim house Agolde made its first foray away from the jeans and T-shirts of classic leisurewear with the launch of a (vegan) leather shirt in tasteful tones of cream, black and dove grey. In November, model and writer Laura Bailey and stylist Cathy Kasterine launched a capsule collection of women’s shirting with the Mayfair men’s shirtmaker Budd, which artfully trod the line between formal officewear and pyjama-influenced loungewear cuts.
South African designer Thebe Magugu, who won the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2019, has included shirting in his womenswear collections ever since he began his label in 2016. For spring/summer 2021, he decided to play with the trope of the shirt as a uniform. Inspired by Jonathan Ancer’s book Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies, Magugu interviewed spies from the Apartheid era, who worked either for or against the government. The interviews became the inspiration for the collection.
“Many of the women disguised themselves as students in a university, then had to meet their handlers in an office in the evening,” Magugu tells me. “This needed versatile dressing, as many of them expressed to me. Shirts really appealed to me as a staple in the collection because they reference hiding in plain sight so well.” One cotton twill shirt features a print with the handwritten confession of an unnamed spy from her trial. Another features an image of a spy who can only be referred to as “Mrs Miles”, whose face is printed on a knee-length shirt dress in pale grey and sky blue. “I don’t believe in clothes that dictate where they should be worn,” adds Magugu. “They should be able to take wearers through the day. This is what I love about ready-to-wear. And it’s what I love about shirting.”
Why now? It’s all in the shirt’s alluring blend of comfort and propriety. In the right kind of fabric (soft, not starched stiff) and cut (boxy, not fitted), it can see you through the working day at home or in the office and into an evening spent either on the sofa or out and about. Heather Gramston, head of womenswear buying at Browns Fashion, confirms: “It comes as no surprise that wardrobe essentials have continued to perform well throughout the pandemic,” she says. “Shirting is a key category for us within that, which I attribute partly to comfort and the concept of dressing from the waist up for video calls.”
For Kasterine, the shirt’s appeal lies in its timelessness. “I have a huge desire to minimise and declutter,” she says. “Our lives have been simplified and I want my wardrobe to reflect that. Wearing a beautifully made shirt, in the best cotton or silk, feels fresh and just right. I think that ‘fashion’ is not so relevant right now. I want to feel like I am wearing something chic and stylish.” William Lundgren, co-founder and CEO of London and Stockholm-based fashion house BITE Studios, attributes the popularity of his crinkled cotton boyfriend shirts to the fact that they “truly are the ultimate luxury wardrobe staple. They never get old”.
Libby Page, senior market editor for Net-a-Porter, agrees. She reports that her customers have been “looking for pieces that have a timeless sensibility that can be bought now and worn forever. The classic shirt is something we will never tire of.”
Next time you can’t decide what to wear, take Herrera’s advice. But instead of white, why not try the hot-pink Valentino number? We could all do with a little more excitement in our lives.