In the arsenal that is your work wardrobe, a crisp cotton white shirt is ultimate weapon of power dressing. Whether it is a black-tie event you need to navigate your way through or a board meeting you need to ace, this is the trump card—even president-elect Donald Trump would concede. No wonder it a a part of his uniform; his way of wearing it involves a boxy navy suit and a GOP-red tie. Throughout history, the most powerful men—from ex presidents to Dandies—have faithfully stuck to it (while it might be a time-saving, tactic it’s value hasn’t diminished). But this ubiquitous piece of garment has an evolutionary history that will find Darwin curious.. Here’s how it can to be what it is today.
Today, a starched white shirt is the symbol of power and business, but back in the Middle Ages, a white shirt was just an undergarment. Also called a chemise (not to be confused with the women’s undergarment) it’s sole purpose was to serve as a lining between the body and the outer layer of waistcoats and jackets so it could prevent sweat stains. This was long before developments in laundry, mind you, so the smock-like garment had a serious job to do.
Dandy Does It
If you’re wondering how something that started off as an undergarment became the epitome of formal wear, we have two words – Beau Brummell. A fashion icon in the Regency Period, Brummell can be credited with introducing what would become the three-piece suit to men’s fashion. Known for teaming his crisp white linen shirts with cravat, a dark coloured waistcoat, peg trousers and a tailcoat, Brummell’s style had an influence on men of the time and continues to be so.
Cut to the early 1900s and the myriad technological developments that lead the white shirt to become what it is today. Thomas J Watson, chairperson and CEO of IBM from 1914 to 1956, was known for his uniform of a grey suit, white shirt and a strictly-business tie. Not only did he favour this ensemble, he insisted all his employees follow suit.
Sixties and Shirts
Between the 1960s and ’70s, the white shirt assumed a more egalitarian and utilitarian avatar. The dress shirt was available in synthetic fabrics, making it more ubiquitous. So much so that musicians of the time—The Beatles setting a good example—were seen sporting wing-collared versions. By the late ’70s, the collars got bigger but the shirt remained a hero.
Running for President
We live in the times where musicians have been replaced by politicians and so, these are the people we turn to to get our style cues. Barack Obama made the dress shirt cool with his cavalier style—rolled up sleeves and chinos that added to his “get-shit-done” persona. Sure he’s on his way out and Donald Trump might undo all his legacy, but the only constant we might see for the next four years is the POTUS uniform of the white dress shirt.
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