The white shirt has long been an indicator of high status and quality. Its symbolism and long history mean that it can describe a society like no other everyday wardrobe element. Today, this simple and often unacknowledged garment unites people of various occupations, opinions, and backgrounds, proving that underneath their exteriors, they have similarities after all.
The story behind the story:
When I first settled in Turkey in 2008, a meticulous attention to one's looks practiced by majority of locals was something that caught my eye almost immediately. I wasn't used to seeing evening gowns and full makeup on morning TV anywhere in Europe. Where I was from, if you didn't work in an office, a white shirt would not be your first outfit of choice. When my mom came to visit me a few years later, one of the first comments she made was that so many people seemed dressed up as if there was a special occasion. That made me believe there was a story behind it, and it turned out--it was quite an interesting one.
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The classic white shirt has over time gained distinctive value, based on what it means both culturally and to individuals. While it is internationally associated with corporate culture, on the streets of Istanbul, much more than anywhere else in the world, it is a crucial piece of the everyday outfit worn by people of all ages and professions. This local phenomenon is not just a sign of aspiring elegance. For centuries, limitations on dress were a form of social control, and so the über-importance of one’s attire might be difficult to understand for Europeans or Americans. Dress is also the ultimate way of enhancing one’s image, and the white shirt – available in a variety of styles and price ranges – is an ideal tool.
Tailored white shirts have been an undisputed element of European dress codes for centuries. “In the very early days white was a color which signified wealth. It showed that the wearer was rich enough to have people laundering the shirts, which would get dirty very quickly,” says Professor Ben Fletcher from the Department of Fashion at Istanbul Bilgi University. Today, the very same white shirt has become a crucial part of standard office attire. “But clothing is a way to signal to others our social status and the white shirt is still an indicator of someone with high status who takes care with their appearance.”
The type of tailored shirt we know today originated from variants of earlier undergarments that have existed since the Middle Ages, also as part of the traditional Ottoman outfit. “White shirts were a significant social signal in the early days of tailored shirts,” Professor Fletcher says. “By the nineteenth century the shirt became more tailored, and the twentieth century heralded the birth of the ‘office’ shirts that we commonly see today.” Along with the classic white model originally reserved for formal occasions, a variety of colors and patterns have been available to working professionals since the 1950s.
Women eventually adopted men’s shirts, altering stereotypes of feminine materialism and ostentation. The masculine designs of Coco Chanel, considered transgressive and bold in the 1920s and ‘30s, have become unquestioned classics and signs of a successful career – just as they are for men. Popularized by iconic actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, white shirts referred not only to the characters they played, but also to the actresses’ own social attitudes and relationships.
Of shirts and Turks
Dress was of high importance in local society, throughout the Ottoman times. After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, attire for all social groups was regulated by law. The dress codes, repeatedly modified and developed until the eighteenth century, applied restrictions not only to forms, but also fabrics, colors, and patterns. These regulations ensured that long-established social barriers were maintained.
In the pre-Industrial Revolution era, when the cost of textiles and manual labor was relatively high, an elegant hand-made outfit was the ultimate marker of status. New fashion trends reflected the behaviors of the elite and were set by the leaders, whose outfits later inspired other segments of society. The first liberties in traditional Ottoman attire, such as alterations of garments, became noticeable in the eighteenth century. When fashion was industrialized - along with everything else - during the Industrial Revolution new types of textiles were introduced to the country. The cosmopolitan society of nineteenth-century Istanbul, especially well-travelled minorities, started adopting new European forms as well.
A thoroughly modern shirt
Since the rapid development of mass production, people all around the world have started to seek new ways of enhancing their prestige in the eyes of others. Until now, clothing has served as the ultimate statement of identity, with a variety of choices available for reasonable prices. Currently shirts are the third-most widely produced garment in the world. In Turkey, production was small-scale and reserved for the domestic market until the 1980s. Today, there are more than 1,000 shirt-manufacturing plants in the country, some of which produce for international luxury brands such as Italy’s Zegna or Germany’s Hugo Boss.
Minimalistic looks have been well adapted by artists and design houses everywhere, and white shirts are present in the collections of many renowned Turkish fashion designers. Ece Ege, the creative force behind the brand Dice Kayek, started her professional career with a collection of white shirts that brought her international recognition. Bilsar, which established its position on the market as a shirt manufacturer for other brands, launched its own brand – Bil’s, which specializes in white shirts. Each season the company invites new designers to contribute to its collections. Some of Bil’s vintage pieces have been created by renowned Turkish designers such as Hakan Yıldırım, Ümit Ünal, and Hatice Gökçe.
These designers know that the status of the white shirt is timeless. Throughout history, political movements have adopted colored shirts as their symbols. White, however, has managed to avoid political affiliations and remain a symbol of universal elegance. Whether made-to-measure or ready-to-wear, white shirts emphasize character above all else - they never overshadow the wearer.
This article was originally published online by Bridge magazine (April 2014); reprinted by The Guide Istanbul in 2016.