The White Shirt – A Coded History

The white shirt is such a ubiquitous part of the male wardrobe that we readily take it for granted. Yet for the greater part of the last two centuries, it was imbued with social and class codes. In the Victorian era, even while largely hidden by outer garments, the white shirt was a symbol of wealth, class distinction and conventional mores. Asides from signifying purity and austerity, white shirts required frequent washing, as well as possession of enough of them to wear and change regularly, which only someone of substantial means could afford. Thus it was emblematic of affluence, and the terms “white collar” and “blue collar” (for laboring workmen) came into use accordingly. In fact, clerical workers who wore white shirts were referred to derogatorily by blue-collar workers as “white collar stiffs” for dressing above their social rank. The shirt collar was also a status symbol, with starched high collars distinguishing the elite from clerks, who wore low collars for ease of movement. Asides form classist implications, the plain white dress shirt further signified a sober, moral and trustworthy masculine character.

By the close of the 19th century, the use of the white dress shirt to distinguish class was diminishing. Manufacturing having increased their affordability and availability, more men could wear white shirts more frequently for more occasions - church, promenading, as well as for clerical work. The emphasis for class distinction shifted from the actual whiteness of the shirt to the quality of the cloth, tailoring of the fit, and finesse of detailing. But the basic form of the white dress shirt would remain essentially the same.

After World War I, more relaxed social attitudes translated to less formal clothing. The Prince of Wales, a key fashion figure of the time, gave up stiff white shirts for more fluid colored ones. Nonetheless, for most of the middle class in the early 1920s, the white dress shirt was inseparably associated with respectability. In 1924, IBM Founder Thomas J. Watson instilled a mandatory dress code for all his office employees to wear white shirts. This idea of the steadfast male was exemplified in the iconic advertising campaigns of the American shirt and collar company, Arrow. Illustrator J.C. Leyendecker’s renderings of the Arrow Collar Man in a rigid white shirt came to represent the American masculine ideal of the time.

Today, designers such as Nick Graham are making classic white shirts with different cuts, collars and fits to suit the full array of male body types and style preferences. What’s more, Nick Graham’s white shirts offer quality tailoring and detailing at unbeatable value. It’s been said you can never have enough white shirts, and happily, you need no longer be rich to own as many as your closet will accommodate. Now that you know your white shirt history, you should enjoy perusing through the Nick Graham collection all the more.