The return of the plain white shirt

Timothy Barber
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THE white shirt is to men what the little black dress is to women – it goes with anything, can be extremely formal or stylishly casual, and everyone has one. In fact, every chap should have several, since it’s back in fashion, particularly in the City. Eighteen months ago, when expressing brash confidence rather than cool professionalism still had sway, shirts with broad stripes in loud colours were seen everywhere. In 2010 it’s all about being dapper in a responsible, understated way, and the good old white shirt is the foundation of such a look.

“It’s the tried, tested and classic look, and we’re certainly seeing more people reverting to that,” says Jonathan Payne, tailor with luxury menswear brand Alfred Dunhill.

Even Hollywood is cottoning on (if you’ll excuse the pun). In new film A Single Man, Colin Firth’s professor – as styled by the film’s director, fashion designer Tom Ford – is a paragon of debonair refinement in a dark suit and plain white shirt. Early in the film we see that he keeps a drawer packed with identical, professionally pressed white shirts.

However, while his shirts may all be the same, white shirts in fact offer up a wealth of options – the shape of the collar, style of cuff and type of material are all considerations to be made carefully. For instance, while patterned shirts are out, white shirts with a lightly textured fabric that has a stripe effect when you look closely – known as a dobby stripe – gives an amount of depth and shade without losing any of the crispness, like a very subtle suit stripe.

“People are looking for slight variations on the theme,” says Payne. “Those kind of things add richness to a gentleman’s wardrobe – it shows that even though you’re adopting a very classical look, you’re thinking about it, being refined and making an effort, rather than just taking easy options.”

The fashion for wearing white shirts with a suit but without a tie has waned, and so have the outsize, Harry Hill-style collars that came with it. Some bespoke shirt-makers are even reducing normal collar sizes by a centimetre or two for a more refined look.

Cutaway collars, where the line of the collar is almost horizontal, are suitable if you go for a big, full Windsor tie knot, though some would say that’s a rather strident look for austerity Britain. There’s no need to go for a severely pointed collar, though – semi-cutaway has the right mix of elegant sophistication while allowing room for a decent half Windsor. For a more relaxed, preppy look, you can still get away with the buttoned-down American look.

An important point with collars: always be careful with the iron. With a quality shirt the collars aren’t fused – meaning the surface fabric is loose from the internal structure. If you iron towards the point you’ll end up with a crease down the front edge, so make sure you press it from the point back towards the neck – and remove the bones inside first, so you don’t end up with their imprinted outline. Better still, get your shirts professionally washed and pressed – it’ll save time and effort, and you’ll look much smarter.

The button cuff, also known as the barrel cuff, is what its name suggests – a cuff held together by a sewn-on button. It’s fine for every day use, but if you’re going to important meetings or other occasions, a shirt with a cufflink is a must. A single cuff – where the material comes down to a seamed end – is fine. But a French cuff – also known as the double cuff – in which the material is double the length of the sleeve end and folds back to be fastened by a cufflink running through four layers of material, is still the most sophisticated option and the smartest. It may be a bit of a fiddle, but the folded-over material gives a far more elegant finish to the sleeve. Remember, when you meet people and shake their hand, this is something that may register, even on a subconscious level. That mean’s it’s particularly important to get the cufflink right.

When it comes to cuff links, at all costs resist the temptation to wear anythings that might ever be associated with the words “zany”, “comedy” or “extravagant”. Cuff links are not an excuse to show off either the size of your wallet or your boundless sense of humour. They should be simple and elegant, and they shouldn’t clash with your tie.

Just as white shirts go with any shade of suit, they also go with any shade of tie – but that doesn’t mean wearing one is an excuse to get excessive with your tie pattern. Crisp lines and sharp contrasts are good, so go for a monotone tie or a smart club stripe. If you want to add that little dash of something different, then go for texture – knitted wool ties with square-cut ends are on the up, and work brilliantly with a smooth white shirt. For a little understated extravagance, get one in cashmere.

If you fancy wearing a pocket handkerchief, the normal thing is to match it with your tie, but as Firth in A Single Man and the cast of Mad Men have demonstrated, a white pocket square complimenting a white shirt is the pinnacle of sartorial cool. It needs to be folded as crisply as possible, however – if the pocket square is ruffled and untidy, the whole look will fall to pieces.

White herringbone dobby shirt with double cuff and spread collar.

Non-iron Oxford shirt with button-down collar and single cuff.

White tailored shirt with micor diamond

JAEGER, £32 (reduced from £125)
White poplin shirt with pleated collar, cuffs and shoulders.