Strong women in white shirts

White shirts are the perennial "must have" item on many a stylist's list. Though I've long thought they do not suit me, I'm taken with a series of portraits of striking women in theirs, featured in The Gentlewoman and The New York Times' T Magazine. 

They remind me, as the stores fill with brights and prints, that while tempted, I end up not wearing brights much. The soothing calm of the shirt draws attention to the woman, not her clothes—and what women!

The English singer Alison Moyet, retrieved from The Gentlewoman:

Also from The Gentlewoman, the great model Pat Cleveland:

In the Times' T Magazine, designer Phoebe Philo in one of her current designs for Céline:

English film director Clio Barnard in a white shirt, black trousers and a beautiful silver-link necklace (which looks like Georg Jensen to me), in The Gentlewoman:

David Lewinski shot the ever-sassy Elaine Stritch for another NYT profile, in her trademark white shirt (actually ecru) and black tights. What legs at nearly 89! 

Stritch, who has openly discussed her struggles with drinking, was abstinent for years and has returned to a moderate level of consumption because, as she says, "I’m not going to have three drinks, I’m not going to have four. I’m going to have two, and that’s it, folks. I just want to enjoy life and relax a little bit and go out with the rich ladies in Birmingham (the Detroit suburb where she now lives) and enjoy them. And you can’t enjoy them sober."

The article about Philo mentioned the concept of invisibility, but as a desirable outcome. Isabelle Huppert, who modeled a chalk-white Céline sweater, said: "You are not visible with Phoebe's clothes, it's not too obvious. It's a way of not being seen." 

This is a different perspective from that of women who object to "being invisible", especially as they age, so choose the vivid or eye-catching. 

I'm of the Huppert school myself, and at the same time can exhale in rapture over a citron coat paired with a red skirt printed with lemons and peonies! 

There is room to enjoy both attitudes in spring sunlight. I will try the shirt; my avoidance may be one of those ingrained prejudices that turn out to be no longer valid—but just might get my head turned by a fresia-pink scarf.


Gretchen said…
Oh, how I live for my white shirts! The older I get, the less I can tolerate color, and if I wear it, usually it's in the summer, and on my lower half. I read a blog post this week on that invisibility factor, where someone complained their husband didn't even comment on how lovely they looked (after taking 2h to get ready to go to a friend's party, I wouldn't comment, at least not positively, either!). Folks talk about white as a blank canvas for scarves, jewelry, etc., but I simply find it soothing and the keystone of my uniform.
une femme said…
I love the look of a white shirt on other women, but somehow they always look a bit frumpy on me. I've switched over to drapey silk for the few colored shirts in my wardrobe, may have to try one in ivory.
LPC said…
What beautiful photos. I'm always surprised by how well white suits me. Must be something in the shoulders and the coloring, as they seem define most of what I wear well anyway:).
Kristien62 said…
I agree with Gretchen when she speaks of the white shirt as a backdrop for bold accessories. I think they look terrific--on other people. I do own 2 white shirts, but no matter how hard I try, they are never comfortable. I find shirts and blouses constricting and usually opt for knits. Yet I still appreciate their simplicity.
frugalscholar said…
Like others, I love white shirts on others. Plus, I'm a spiller, so I must stay away from white.

I probably can't express quite what I mean here--but I think there is a difference between the invisibility of the average middle-aged/aged person and the "invisibility" of people wearing extremely elegant clothing of exquisite fabric. I have sometimes been tempted to touch the sleeves of garments of very fine cotton, linen, and especially wool. It's invisible, but not. So far, I have restrained myself.
frugalscholar said…
Like others, I love white shirts on others. Plus, I'm a spiller, so I must stay away from white.

I probably can't express quite what I mean here--but I think there is a difference between the invisibility of the average middle-aged/aged person and the "invisibility" of people wearing extremely elegant clothing of exquisite fabric. I have sometimes been tempted to touch the sleeves of garments of very fine cotton, linen, and especially wool. It's invisible, but not. So far, I have restrained myself.
materfamilias said…
Another who has found that the crisp white shirt, while much admired on others, just doesn't work on me. I think much has to do with my short-waistedness. But recently I'm giving it yet another go, thanks to an inexpensive Gap shirt that's closer to a cotton lawn weight than to a crisp poplin, and I'm liking it. The white definitely does more to flatter my face than black (my more constant go-to) does. And these wonderful, wonderful photos certainly testify to the quiet power white offers
Cornelia said…
I do love a crisp white shirt, and it's my fall back when I can't of anything else to wear. But I can see how many women who look more flattering in soft structure find these shirts a bit challenging. A friend of mine says she feels like she is dressing in a uniform whenever she tried a white shirt. Me, give me men's wear inspired clothing any day and I am happy. Great photographs.
LauraH said…
Linen shirts are wonderful for summer, the structure they provide offsets the heat and humidity we experience in Toronto. Since I love colour, I go for corals, turquoise, lime green but never white. Just doesn't seem to do much for me although I like it on others.

Interesting comment from frugalscholar about two kinds of invisibility. While working I wore what everyone else was wearing to fit in - another form of invisibility - now I feel freer to wear what I like, nothing too wild or crazy, just more me.
Anonymous said…
Years ago I had an amazing painting teacher who was a colourist. He painted a series of paintings he called his "White Paintings". In them were so many colours I would not have considered white. Of course, they made me look at "white" with fresh eyes. Look at the shadows and reflections on white. I believe there is a white for everyone though it may not be "painter's white" sold at the paint store. There are beautiful whites to flatter every complexion. If we look at Margy of Fool4Fabric we can see that a white shirt does not make her invisible. She looks beautiful and dramatic and very visible.
Thanks for a great post
Anonymous said…
I'm with Une Femme: the much-admired "crisp white shirt" makes me feel fussed and uncomfortable, but I recently bought a vanilla silk blouse from the Pure Collection that drapes in a retro feminine and flattering way, and I love it. I think that the comments here have mentioned critical points--shoulder shape, waist length, and the exact shade of white, from blue-white to ecru, are all important.

As for invisibility vs high-visibility, I have quiet combinations--blues, grays, off-whites--that work for me most of the time. When I'm feeling in particularly good form, though, I'll reach for those pinks and turquoises that get more attention. Like you, I find that seasonal changes make me crave certain colors. Frugal Scholar makes a great point, too: the "invisibility" that comes from wearing subtle, exquisite fabrics and tailoring is actually a kind of ease and confidence very different from the uninspired drabness that most people describe as invisible.

Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
I have a closet full of beautiful white shirts...that I seldom wear. When I do think about wearing one, it is usually when I'm going to an Italian restaurant and will surely spill red sauce on it. Part of it too, is that white can make one's teeth look yellow. And, like other readers, I feel constricted in shirts and much prefer knits.
I've pretty much stopped wearing shirts except as summer "jackets" over knit tops. Opposite of Anon 11:57; small shoulders and big boobs. Not to mention the black cat.

The photos are lovely; it is a classic look, but does not suit everyone. I'm happy that nowadays, there are knit tops in silk, linen and other materials appropriate for work.
Duchesse said…
Gretchen: I see by the comments white shirts evoke both ends of the love-hate spectrum. It is a very wise partner who makes a point of noticing his or her partner's efforts.

une femme: I had an ivory silk blouse that was just fantastic- know what you mean! That would look marvelous on you.

LPC: Yes, when you post shots of yourself in white you always look beautiful.

frugal: Thank you for this refined parsing of invisibility: I and other readers resonate to it. I'm a spiller too, but I do love white linen tees or shirts, and find them very easy to clean, even more than cotton.

materfamilias; If you come across Anne Fontaine, check the cut; many of her styles are short-waisted. I am rethinking white, which I rarely wore on top.

Cornelia: An image consultant told me a white shirt is one of the few items that looks polished without a jacket and "always right" (or I guess always right if the particular white suits you.)

C.: Not just to you but to all with fit issues, consider a custom-made shirt (no matter the colour.) Men have done this forever- why should women put up with with too-wide shoulders or the wrong length sleeve?

I'd rather have one shirt that fits perfectly than five that only sort of fit.

Anon@11:57: See my comment above. I guess fit •really• bothers you, because you are SHOUTING.

Anon@12:03: If a white shirt makes teeth look yellow, many other yellow-based colours will, as well. To me that's a signal it's time to book a session of professional tooth bleaching- not to the blinding-white stage, just to lift dinginess. Or, some readers use the white strips from the drugstore. What do you think? Years of coffee, tea, red wine, etc. take their toll- nothing to do with hygiene.

I'm the same if long pasta is a possibility- the defensive wearing of a dark colour!

LauraH: Sure sure missed the Irish Shop when they closed, they had beautiful handkerchief-weight linen shirts. I like coloured linen but found lack linen needs to be redyed after one summer.

Duchesse said…
lgatta: I always thought white doesn't suit everyone, but these photos have made me rethink it (and it may be the makeup). They do require care, which I think is another reason why I'd drifted from them.
Northmoon said…
I always think 'waiter uniform' when I consider the white shirt/black pants combination. Although these shots with proper accessories don't say 'servant' so much!

Also I have a large chest, so it's hard to find shirts that don't gap. I do have white shirts that I wear under sweaters - only the collar, cuffs and perhaps a few inches at the bottom show. Perhaps I may be inspired to wear them open over a t-shirt in a jacket fashion this spring.
Bunny said…
I adore white shirts, the crisper the better and try to make a few each year as I literally wear them out. Years ago, when I got my "colors done" I was told I am one of the few who can wear snow white. I love it, it's crispiness, and it's attitude. A well fitting blouse in a cotton pique with a stiff upturned collar, bring it on!
Eleanorjane said…
I just can't be doing with ironing! And I don't enjoy the feeling of structured clothes on my upper body (i.e. jackets or tailoured shirts). I do have a flowy white shirt which I get compliments on, but I only get around to ironing it (and therefore wearing it) every few months.
Anonymous said…
I don't think it's the neutrals-vs-colors that renders us middle aged women invisible. I'm 57, and just commented to my 55 yr old sister-in-law that compliments these days seems to come with a caveat: You look really good! (For your age).

I'm not about to start dressing like some of the Advanced Style ladies, who are lively and colorful, but look a little ridiculous IMO. Mostly, though, I think I dress well, and sometimes even look really good (for my age), but wish a man would actually stop and notice me, just for the ego boost. Sigh.

---Jill Ann
Anonymous said…
I have a few white shirts & they give me a real lift when I wear them - hate ironing though , so not everyday wear . As you say , the fit is very important to avoid feeling trussed up . My favorite shirts are by Margaret Howell who began as a designer & maker of men's shirts . She is expensive but the cut & quality is perfect . We have an end of line discount store nearby otherwise I wouldn't own any of her clothes .
Duchesse said…
Northmoon: Not one of thee women is wearing an apron.

Bunny: How wonderful to have the skills to make them, ensuring perfect fit.

Jill Ann: I've riled quite a few people re what I think of the more "eccentric" Advanced Style" subjects! It fascinates me, as we age some women miss being looked at with admiration (and sometimes more), others feel relieved to be free of that.

EleanorJane: I always liked ironing; it's clan, satisfying work for me. I had an aunt who always ironed with a glass of sherry on the board. She said, "It makes the iron go so much faster."

Wendy: I have had some and loved the cut and quality. Expensive but lasted a long time.

Anonymous said…
I have a very basic white shirt that I like to wear with sweaters, but it doesn't feel like enough on its own.

I'm planning to sew one for myself with dolman sleeves and wide front and back pleats -- very modern -- out of natural white linen for the summer. Just as soon as I buy my new machine, that is.
Duchesse said…
rubi: I noticed all of the shots include jewelry (Philo's doesn't show but it's a fine chain) and on Cleveland, a scarf. Makes a great deal of difference. Good luck with new machine, very exciting.
Tiffany said…
I love white shirts and just got a new one - a superfine cotton that is soft rather than crisp - and I have been wearing it constantly. Since I've started growing out my grey hair white seems to suit me better ...
Madame Là-bas said…
I am too short-waisted to feel comfortable in a tailored white shirt but I recently purchased an ivory tunic length top to try.
I have one crisp white shirt and I enjoy wearing it with masses of pearls. I wear white tank tops almost everyday underneath cashmere sweaters or a jacket. I love the versatility of white. For summer I have a larger linen shirt that I use as a jacket...layered over my basic white tanks.
Elaine has amazing legs! There is a certain appeal here with these women in white...very elegant, and you see them not their clothes. Not invisible at all.
Dr. VO said…
FWIW, I recently had my teeth bleached and found my white shirts, which I have always adored for their minimalist sincerity, to be even more appealing to wear. As a denizen of Orange County CA I wear a white shirt (JCrew Boy shirt) and dark jeans all summer long, as it's crisp, cooling, and always invokes a sense of simple elegance even when casual. I'm on the search for the perfectly tailored white shirt, though, so am still hunting.
Beth said…
I bought a great pair of black pants with a lot of waist and hip detail yesterday and when I got home, decided that my crisp white poplin shirt -- fairly fitted, with a little spandex -- was the best pairing from my current closet. I always have several white shirts -- poplin or other crisp cotton, short-sleeve linen, white silk -- and wear them less often than I should, mainly because then I'll have to iron them and I already iron a lot of shirts for my natural-fiber-only husband! I like them with jeans as well.

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