The White Standard

The white shirt is historically an indicator of high status and standards. It describes the society in a historical and symbolic context like no other everyday wardrobe element. Today, this simple and often unacknowledged garment unites people of various occupations, opinions and backgrounds, showing that underneath their unique exteriors, they have similarities after all.

text by Marzena Romanowska for BRIDGE

The classic white shirt has gained distinctive value based on cultural and individual meaning over time. 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 wore 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, therefore the existing uber-importance of one’s attire might be difficult to understand for Europeans or Americans. Dress is also an ultimate way of enhancing ones image, and the white shirt – available in a variety of styles and price ranges – makes an ideal tool in the process.

White tailored shirts have been an undisputed element of European dress code 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 tailored 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 that 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 19th Century the shirt became more tailored, and the 20th 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 the stereotype of feminine materialism and ostentation. The masculine designs of Coco Chanel in the 1920s and 30s have become desirable style 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 movie characters they played, but also to the actresses’ own social attitudes and relationships.

Of shirts and Turks

Dress has always been of high importance in the local society ever since the Ottoman times. After the conquest of Constantinople, attire for all social groups was regulated by law. The dress codes, which kept on being developed until the 18th century, applied formal restrictions not only to forms, but also fabrics, colors and patterns, and 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, elegant hand-made outfit was the ultimate marker of status. The new fashion trends reflected behaviors of the elite and were set by the leaders whose outfit later inspired other segments of the society. The first liberties in traditional Ottoman attire, such as alterations of garments, became noticeable in the 18th century. Industrialization of fashion introduced the new types of textiles to the country, while the cosmopolitan society of 19th century Istanbul – especially well-travelled minorities – started adopting new European forms as well.

After rapid development of mass production, people all around the world have started to seek for new ways of enhancing their prestige in the eyes of others. Until now clothing has served as the ultimate statement of identity, with variety of choices available for reasonable prices. Currently shirts are the third most widely produced category of 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 Italian Zegna or Germany’s Hugo Boss.

Minimalistic looks are well adapted by artists and creative professionals around the world. White shirts are present in the collections of many renowned fashion designers in Turkey as well. 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 or Hatice Gökçe.

These designers know that the status of the white shirt is reliable. 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 always emphasize character, because they never overshadow the wearer.

Social change through the eyes of fashion

Looking at the growing number of style magazines on the market, one can hardly imagine that only two decades ago fashion was as not considered a discipline in social history. Although the textile industry has played an important role in the economic growth of many countries, including Turkey, it was rarely a subject of a theoretical debate. The late 1980s and early 1990s introduced the first semi-scientific approach to fashion, treating it as a social phenomenon that traces changes in contemporary culture and communicates one’s social identity.


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