And how it became the Harry Dean Stanton of our closets.
With its beige carpet, ornate floral arrangements, and dark wood contours, the dress-shirt section of this ye olde men's store in New York City feels like an old-money country-club locker room (only minus the naked old guys). Cubbyholes filled with crisply folded dress shirts line the walls underneath discreet placards bearing Italianate names. There are few white shirts here, but they are rare air, a moment of silence, among the bold patterns and Dixie Cup pastels. "Nearly impossible," says Matt, a cubicle dweller of 27, of his quest to find the right white dress shirt. He's looked around here and there, tried on contenders, but over and over again he's been let down by fabric too thin or thick, flimsy buttons, blousy fits given to billowing, and collars so big he looks like Tony Montana. This store's best sellers, with their modified spreads and wide-open angles, are the type seen mostly at steakhouses and on trading floors. When the shirt is tucked into a pair of jeans, which is how he'll most likely wear it, its formality seems a little bit silly, like the top of him is at the law firm but the bottom half has been laid off. "I need a white dress shirt," says Matt, "that isn't so dressy."
We've been wearing white dress shirts for what seems like millennia, with the modern era beginning with the Arrow Collar Man, the square-jawed brawny brainchild of the proto-Don Draper, Earnest Elmo Calkins, who introduced the character in 1905. For 25 years, the Arrow Collar Man guided America's men to manliness, using not words but simply a look. And from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit all the way up to Mad Men, the white dress shirt has been the strong silent type of our collective closet, holding the men who wear it to a rigor patterned shirts might not. Foreboding, it brooks no wrinkles, masks no stains. (Choose the wrong cloth and it won't even conceal your nipples.) Many men think—and even some designers themselves say—that the white shirt is a blank canvas, but men are not easels, and ties are not watercolors, and a white dress shirt is not a blank canvas. Instead, Alex Drexler of Alex Mill calls it a "hidden warrior." Liam Fayed of Bespoken calls it "the foundation." And Simon Spurr, the British designer who now heads Kent & Curwen and could spend an hour describing the three white shirts he offers in his spring lineup, calls it "the beginning of all men's wear." But Billy Reid puts it best. "A white dress shirt," says the Florence, Alabama, based designer, who spent months working on his current version, "is like Harry Dean Stanton. No one ever notices the shirt. They might notice the tie, the suit, but not the shirt."
The best of Reid's soft cotton shirts, called the Murphy, with its short spread collar, pocketless front, and gentle chambray texture, will never demand praise or overshadow the blazer under which it sits. When the white dress shirt does its job well, it, like Stanton, repels undue attention with its essential integrity. To put it another way, the white dress shirt isn't Muhammad Ali, it's Arthur Mercante, boxing's legendary third man. It's not Mick Jagger, it's the guy working the soundboard on the Stones tour. It's not Neil Armstrong, it's mission control. This is not an argument for its lack of importance but for an elevation of our awareness.
Clockwise from top left: The mother of pearl buttons: Cotton shirt ($65) by DKNY, dkny.com; The semi-spread collar: Cotton shirt by Billy Reid, billyreid.com; The button cuff: Cotton shirt ($335) by Turnbull & Asser, turnbullandasser.com.