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The Allure of the White Shirt

Spring’s freshest uniform is infallible, effortless—and impossibly chic.

It’s crowded out there. Busy, noisy. even those among us who pretend to have no interest in fashion must have noticed the panoply of choices, the endless clamor of suggestions, the dizzying array of garments at every price point, for every enthusiasm, every fantasy: Floating ankle-length caftans or semipornographic jeggings? Jailbird stripes or exploded peonies?

Balenciaga

With spring 2013 designs arriving by the truckload, is it any wonder that so many exhausted people, visually stimulated to the point of near-blindness, seek a solution by taking refuge in a uniform, a mode of dress that refuses to go in or out of style? We are not talking here of bland shufflers who retreat to the dull, the obvious, the depressingly practical—not for this discussion are the khakis- and-polo addict, the shift-and-stilettos settler. No, under our microscope are those who’ve dreamed up ingenious solutions, stalwarts strong enough to stick to convictions even if their ideas are seen by the larger world as slightly nutty.

Stella McCartney

Or, sometimes, more than slightly. Consider the case of designer Peter Marino, so comfortable in his own skin that he can stroll around town in full-on leather-daddy regalia, looking like the world’s oldest extra in The Wild One. Or recollect the choices of the italian writer Anna Piaggi, whose insane eclecticism encompassed Poiret cocoon coats and McDonald’s employee aprons. And what of Diana Vreeland, with her all-black outfits relieved only by a crimson mouth and a pair of rouged earlobes? Or the artist Frida Kahlo, who spent the 1930s swanning around Mexico City in tiered peasant skirts and off-the-shoulder blouses? (Full disclosure: This author has for years—OK, decades—sported ensembles frequently composed of a droopy cardigan and a glittery tulle dance skirt in places where other grown-ups thought a sober Chanel suit was in order.)

Hermes

Maybe you’re thinking, sure, that Peter and Frida can spend all of their time hooking up outfits in front of the mirror—but what about the vast silent majority who crave simpler solutions? Luckily for you, good news is afoot: lots of chic characters have spent the past 200 years constructing clever uniforms around that blissful basic, the white shirt. And—more good news, if you can stand it—this season those bits of starched heaven have been trotted down runways from Balenciaga to Hermès to Stella McCartney (which means that inevitably—and very soon—Zara, H&M and Forever 21 will stock them too).

What other single item suits both Ralph Lauren and Janelle Monáe? Is there another innocent top that begsto be dressed up with a bowler hat and a pair of braces in a ’70s revival à la Diane Keaton’s (shown below right) Annie Hall but is just as appropriate covering the aristocratic Nan Kempner, dressed down for a bit of tony landscaping?

Diane Keaton

 And when it came to putting something atop a lilac Vera Wang skirt for the 1998 Oscars, what did Sharon Stone employ? And how effortlessly cool is this item that when you emerge from the fitting room, wearing torn jeans and an Ann Demeulemeester you-know-what, with your hair a mess, and your best friend says you look like Patti Smith, you know exactly what she means? With a shirt so enticingly austere, we wouldn’t be surprised if Peter turns up next season with an expanse of tidy white flung casually over a harness, or if even this author caves in and throws an oxford circus over her tutu.

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