I love a crisp white shirt with a good collar and a little length that can be dressed up or casual. I am drawn to well-made, classic white shirts and would ideally like to have several, in rotation, so they need to be reasonably priced. Have you ever found a unicorn such as this? — Sarah, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
In 2020, Alexandra Shulman, the former editor of British Vogue, published a memoir that included an entire chapter devoted to the white shirt. “These pieces,” she wrote, “are masters of illusion.”
“They signify order and neatness, professionalism and authority,” she went on — and also “unshowy competence.” They can be “shorthand for ‘the real me.’”
I think she was underselling the matter.
White shirts are that magic garment that can be all things to all people: a symbol of efficiency and power synonymous with corporate headshots everywhere, as well as relaxation and ease. Think Marilyn Monroe in jeans on the beach, her white shirt knotted just so at the waist, or Meghan Markle making her royal-date debut at the Invictus Games with Prince Harry.
They are suitable for the Oscars red carpet (see Sharon Stone in 1998, when she wore a Gap white shirt with a long Vera Wang satin skirt) and a walk through land mines (Princess Diana in Angola in 1997).
The white shirt can be downtown cool — Patti Smith on the cover of “Horses,” in a white shirt undone at the neck, a suit jacket slung just so over the shoulder — and uptown haute. See Carolina Herrera pretty much any time. It’s entirely gender neutral. There’s almost no one who doesn’t look good in a white shirt.
As a result, the perfect white button-up is one of those garments that floats like a mirage on the landscape of the mind, just out of reach. It’s the fashion equivalent of the blank page, inviting us to project all of our subconscious desires and fantasies of self atop. (By the way, a button-up can be, but is not necessarily, a button-down — this is important fashion nomenclature: Button-ups are shirts you button down the front, while button-downs are shirts with collars held down by buttons on each point).
Which is why the designer Anne Fontaine, who started her namesake business with a line of only white shirts in 1993, is still able to offer new styles every year.
So how to choose? White shirts range from the very inexpensive (Amazon Essentials has one for $13.60) to the semi-outrageous. A Charvet cotton poplin shirt will cost you $568.
Karl Lagerfeld, who was famous for his high-collar white shirts and owned about 1,000, bought his at the British tailor Hilditch & Key, where a standard white shirt runs about £140 (about $165).
For a somewhat less expensive version, the basic white shirt from Brooks Brothers in Supima cotton is a good place to start, especially if crisply traditional is what is desired. Also check out the shirts from the Shirt (the name pretty much says it all), which achieved Oprah-approved fame with the promise of “no-gap” buttons, as well as Alex Mill and Sezane, which offers a slightly more insouciant Gallic version of the classic.
If you want to test different details — shaped at the waist, different pocket placements and so on — the Frankie Shop offers a wide selection of options.
Whatever you end up with, though, remember that careful laundering and storage are key to keeping a white shirt fresh and preserving its appeal. Dry cleaning is not necessary, but ironing is important. Nothing ruins the promise of a white shirt like a splotchy souvenir of last week’s Bolognese.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.