The classic white formal shirt : a powerful emblem of social change

Brough, Dean (2013) The classic white formal shirt : a powerful emblem of social change. In 15th Annual IFFTI Conference : The Business & Marketing of Icons, April 2-6, 2013, Los Angeles, California, USA. (In Press)


The classic white formal shirt is a widely and readily familiar object with considerable historical cultural significance to diverse social groups, and is therefore deserving of iconic status. For more than two hundred years, this singular item of apparel has been able to define and represent status, wealth, gender shifts and fashion norms. This garment, which has historically been relinquished to undergarment status, deserves an escalation of standing.

The classic white formal shirt, for both men and women, can be used as a mirror to map considerable social change and the diversity of influence can be traced through many examples, including: Beau Brummell’s dandy status with his legendry white shirting; the Gibson Girl with her decorated white shirt style blouse defining ideals of female beauty; IBM business employees in the 1920s marketing trustworthiness through the uniformity of white shirts; the fictional advertising creation of the Arrow Collar Man, with his rigid white shirt, promoting American masculine ideals; and the iconic 1980s Hugo Boss style crisp white dress shirt symbolising power.

The origins of the influence of the white shirt can be best traced in the Victorian era where it was an important symbol of wealth and class distinction and a powerful emblem of sobriety and uniformity for men. The pure white colour fulfilled masculine ideals of resolute austerity and the shirt, through its constancy, epitomised conformity and dependability. For women, the white cloth of the ‘shirt-waist’ from this period was also linked to ideals of cleanliness and purity and was seen as an iconic symbol of the new independent working class woman.

This paper will propose that the classic white formal shirt, for both men and women, has been a powerful marker of social shifts in Western society and this underrated item of apparel, with limited scholarly writing, is worthy of iconic status. The discussion will trace the historical development of both the men’s and women’s white shirt, each with their own unique history, and in doing so highlight the considerable historical cultural significance associated with the white formal shirt. Discussed first will be the men’s white formal shirt.

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ID Code: 59300
Item Type: Conference Paper
Refereed: Yes
Additional Information: Paper presented at the 15th annual International Fashion Federation of Technology Institute conference. Each year IFFTI publishes a book of the accepted papers.
Additional URLs:
Keywords: Fashion history, Menswear, Fashion design, White shirt, Cultural icons
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > BUILT ENVIRONMENT AND DESIGN (120000) > DESIGN PRACTICE AND MANAGEMENT (120300) > Textile and Fashion Design (120306)
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2013 Please consult the author
Deposited On: 24 Apr 2013 04:58
Last Modified: 26 Feb 2014 13:53

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