Kirstie Clements: Why the white shirt is the ultimate wardrobe essential

The white shirt played out in lots of fabulous ways at the Oscars last week.

The white shirt played out in lots of fabulous ways at the Oscars last week. Photo: Getty

I was asked recently to select just one fashion item that is a wardrobe essential and I had to think hard.

I used to say a pair of well-fitting jeans but after two lockdowns I’m finding jeans too constrictive and uncomfortable, so my answer was the white shirt.

The white shirt played out in lots of fabulous ways at the Oscars last week. I particularly loved the cropped white silk shirt that Zendaya wore, teamed with a long, beautiful, silvery fishtail skirt.

Uma Thurman also looked simply elegant in a white high-collared shirt and long black silk column skirt by Bottega Veneta. Kristen Stewart paired a white dinner shirt unbuttoned to the waist tucked into a pair of black tailored shorts.

It’s the one fashion piece that is always age appropriate, depending on how you choose to wear it and style it.

The white shirt was pivotal in the supermodel period of the ’80s and ’90s, put with Levi 501s, a big blow dry with a taupe lip and a smokey brown eye.

From leggings to swimsuits

We then headed into the Jil Sander period of the ’90s, with collarless white shirts and black pants, hair pulled back into severe ponytails and minimal makeup. It’s a look I still love and something that works very well as you get older.

A big, white oversized man-style shirt looks great over leggings or over a swimsuit. A white tuxedo shirt and tailored trousers (or a long column skirt) is a foolproof solution to a black-tie invitation, worn with heels or evening flats and perhaps sparkly earrings.

A white shirt is going to look particularly good this winter worn with a black or camel sleeveless vest in felted wool. I’ve always liked the juxtaposition of the simplicity of a white cotton shirt paired with something really luxe, like a diamond necklace or a black lace bra, a sequined skirt or a stack of dramatic bangles.

When I think of style icons and chic women of the past, the white shirt somehow always pops into my head: Diana Vreeland wearing a crisp shirt with toreador pants, a flat black hat and red nails. Or, Georgia O’Keeffe, startlingly elegant in black and white in the Santa Fe desert.

Amongst all the tizz and overstatement at the Oscars, it’s like a palate cleanser when you see something as minimal and classic as a crisp white shirt on a woman (the men of course have nailed this for years).

I recall doing a photographic shoot in Denmark with Princess Mary of Denmark in my Vogue days, when it was unexpectedly confirmed that Prince Frederik would also like to be photographed with his new wife and would be swinging by the shoot.

When he asked what he should wear, the stylist quickly replied, “Just jeans and a white shirt”. Of course, the royal household came to the party, and he arrived with three or four different variations of the white shirt thrown casually over his shoulder. They were all beautifully pressed and laundered on hangers, whiter than white. Mary was in silver and  gold sequins. The photo was lovely, supremely understated and chic.

Kudos to the royal laundry.

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