White is right


Style Legend | White is right

The folded sleeves of his white shirt, which wasn’t tucked into his blue jeans, accentuated the ease that Rajesh Pratap Singh wore when he trooped into a New Delhi café for an early breakfast. The designer, whose 15-year-old design label could well be titled “Why the white shirt wins”, and whose best-selling pin-tucked shirts gave Indian fashion the antidote to the colourful schizophrenia of his contemporary Manish Arora, is ready, yet again, to dissect his white obsession.

“I always wore white shirts. In college at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in Delhi, this was a joke about me. With so much colour in India, white calms things down,” says 44-year-old Pratap. He is reluctant to add “spiritual” to his list of reasons for loving white.

In another setting, of a restaurant, the polished black shoes of the sharply suited lawyer Vijay Sondhi mirror the surroundings. As he puts aside his grey jacket, you notice his finely tailored, formal, buttoned-up white shirt accessorized by enamelled, car-shaped cuff links and a printed grey-blue tie. “I have at least 30 white shirts,” says Sondhi, 46, a senior partner at Luthra & Luthra Law Offices, a well-known law firm in the Capital. “I wear seven a week, sometimes changing two in a day given how dirty they get in Delhi courts, after which each is dry-cleaned. I never wash white shirts,” he adds.

The white shirt is an annual summer story for fashion magazines around the world. Hundreds of odes have been written to it—why it is a style staple, where to find the perfect one, and how to wear it. But it is a character by itself in the life of a society, a country, a person, a club, a school, an industry or a profession. It tells personal and political stories, besides the literal ones of pattern and silhouette. Uniform for a chef, corporate chic for a jet-setting CEO, it may not be the top choice for a doctor surrounded by hospital whites who wants to escape its starkness.

White shirts resonated early in Pratap’s life in the men’s costumes of a pastoral community in the Rajasthan desert. White was a constant presence also through his cardiologist father. Most of Pratap’s stores are painted white, with white surgical scrub-room drawers and a hospital stretcher as the centrepiece to display some garments.

Sondhi, whose father was a political science professor, warmed up to white shirts only after becoming a lawyer, but they stayed in his closet and his consciousness as a symbol of refined style. Now he shops for the finest in India and abroad, sometimes getting good replicas made by a trusted tailor—“Whatever it takes to keep ahead in the white shirt pursuit among my peers.”

In India, white not only carries socio-political resonance as the preferred colour of most of our politicians on the one hand, and a symbol of mourning on the other, it can also be an index of economic class. American writer Upton Sinclair’s coinage of “the white collar” as opposed to the working class “blue collar” holds true even today. It is a style statement of the urban elite, not so much the middle class.

In south India, however, there are stores that only sell white shirts and white mundus catering largely to the working classes. The half-sleeved “Kamaraj shirt”, a bush shirt, worn by the statesman and former chief minister of Madras, K. Kamaraj, in the late 1950s was replicated in a full-sleeved version by politician M. Karunanidhi, who wears his with yellow scarves. But his son and DMK leader M.K. Stalin’s white shirts are more like power suits—with stiff, upright collars, a pen in the pocket. Veteran Congress leader P. Chidambaram, who wears full-sleeved white shirts buttoned at the cuffs with veshtis too, makes his ensemble businesslike, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is rarely seen in a white shirt.

Fashion designers find the white shirt evocative. “Let me not romanticize too much but the white shirt is one of the few sociologically potent fashion garments. It symbolizes who you are and how you want to project yourself. It is versatile, works for almost everyone, and can be worn from a chauffeur to an industrialist,” says Ravi Bajaj, who created his first shirt, a women’s staple, more than 20 years back in 1993 for his women’s line Raviver. Stocked at Shoppers Stop, it cost Rs.450-500 then.

For Ashish Soni, the white shirt defines both signature and evolution. “It started with my personal fascination for white long before I understood what a designer’s signature meant, till the market started driving it, making it an enduring part of my work,” says Soni, who made his first shirt 23 years back. Rahul Khanna of the duo Rohit Gandhi-Rahul Khanna, who was wearing a self-designed white linen shirt the day we spoke, says his first memories of the white shirt are from his kindergarten days. “As designers, when we started making them, they were retailed from a small shirt shop in Delhi under our label H2O—they were fitted and modern, which has remained our USP over the years.”

Designer Hemant Sagar of the duo Lecoanet-Hemant, who worked as couturiers in Paris, France, for many years, says the white shirt was the first garment they didn’t have to adapt to a particular person’s body, as is the case with couture. “We made our first white shirt in 2006 from fine poplin; it was inspired by a cowboy’s shirt without pockets. It’s a classic, it remains a proud garment for us and we have never reinvented that style. Our clients order it by the dozen,” he says.

More than 3,000 white shirts, in Khadi, muslin, cotton, linen—with hundreds of pin-tucked techniques, some regular, others cut on bias, with thousands of different collars, some detachable, some buttoned-down and others with concealed buttons—haven’t obfuscated the memory of Pratap’s first white shirt. “It was a hand-spun, handwoven, hand-stitched piece. I am emotional about it and distinctly remember who bought it,” he says wistfully.

In the 1980s, Surf girl Lalitaji, vowing the death of every stain on white, reclaimed whiteness as the prerogative of the white-collared. But now that social class is determined by lifestyle, leisure, occupation, political leanings, education and nutrition, the white shirt’s role has changed. Who made it, what it is made of, whether it’s organic or natural cotton, where you bought it, how you wear it (with a tuxedo, all buttoned-up, half-tucked or with jeans), all decide its meaning.

Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), says he suffers from “a white shirt syndrome”. Sethi owns more than a hundred white shirts. From dozens by various Indian designers to dress shirts from Pantaloons, casual ones from Khadi Bhandar, exclusive pieces by Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood and Neil Barrett, and those that he gets tailored, Sethi says they represent the chaotic phase of his life. “I am not in the Savile Row league but I would spend considerably on a white shirt,” he says, adding that white relieves and soothes him in the midst of extreme colour and the intricacy of his work life. “It is synonymous with my style but not as a staple. I experiment—trying white shirts with padded sleeves, some with yoga patterns, others worn beneath bandhgalas. I go for unusual white shirts but abide by the simplicity of the colour,” says Sethi, who also lists white bandhgalas and white kurta-pyjamas among his wardrobe favourites.

For designers like Pratap, Sagar, Soni, Bajaj and Khanna, white shirts are their top-selling pieces in India and abroad. For local mass and premium stores, it’s a different story, though they all stock classic white shirts and some of them, like Arrow and Zodiac even display them prominently in plastic packaging on racks—Marks & Spencer, in fact, offers packs of three or five.

And that difference reflects a class divide. For instance, white is not best-selling at Khadi Bhandar, where shirts range from Rs.475-750. At the Louis Philippe men’s boutique in New Delhi’s Connaught Place, a nicely curated store, white shirts are not displayed like other merchandise. “We bring them out when a customer asks but their trials are not allowed,” says a store manager. Keeping white untouched is part of its appeal.

Allen Solly stocks classic white shirts, but seems to prefer pumping money into ads to popularize its Friday dressing (coloured and semi-formal, never white). At Numero Uno and Van Heusen, coloured shirts stump sales of white. At Van Heusen, women’s white shirts are stocked in the background. “Women don’t focus on white shirts but men do, so our white shirts for men never go on sale—they are in demand all through the year,” says a Van Heusen store salesperson.

Paromita Das, a 31-year-old banker, associates her white shirts with gainful employment as she wore one for the interview that clinched her job. “There is something forthright and neat about them,” says Das, who has 15 formal whites and half a dozen for casual wear. Soni says he is familiar with that kind of female client. “Every season I have women clients asking what’s new in white shirts,” he adds.

Consumers and retailers draw a distinction between men’s and women’s white shirts but designers don’t, seeing it as androgynous. Sanchita Ajjampur, whose Spring/Summer 2014 collection presented a spin on the Indian white shirt, blurring boundaries of ethnicity, age and sex, says the most current white shirts belong to the 1990s-inspired minimalist school with subtle detailing, including square pockets, cut-outs, darting and invisible fastenings. “In my experience the white shirt consumer is someone who is firmly ingrained in the fabric of society and doesn’t merely dress to make a fashion statement. This preference stems from the desire to express oneself as honest and authentic, which makes the quest for a simple product higher. White stands within a timelessness zone but becomes a blue chip; the alpha and omega of a fashion alphabet,” she says.

The white shirt vocabulary is incomplete without “climate appropriate”. Designer Arjun Saluja, whose new women’s line Essentials, a derivative of his label Rishta, interprets the white shirt as a wardrobe basic, cites climate suitability above all poetic explanations. “We want to make white shirts simpler, offering a garment that goes from day to evening yet lends a sense of power,” he adds.

Soni would agree. “White is not only most suited to the Indian climate but historically underlines the evolution of fabric and fashion. Greige—undyed, natural white—was the only product from handlooms or powerlooms before white or cream. Colour-dyed fabric came much later,” he says.

Yet keeping white spotless in Indian cities is an everyday challenge—a reason why the middle class doesn’t favour white shirts. Either you bleach and dry-clean them regularly or dump them soon as they become yellowish or sullied. “The business of white isn’t easy,” agrees Pratap, saying that the whiteness can be traced back to the colour, count and purity of the cotton yarn used, how it is twisted, whether it was pre-bleached, besides many procedural cautions.

“During manual pin-tucking, we keep reminding our operators to wash hands again and again,” he explains, adding that imported, industrial chemicals are used to bleach yarn and fabric, followed by the manual washing of many finished shirts. “The finishing of white shirts mandates detailed interventions by skilled production managers who spot flaws long before they become visible,” he says.

Little surprise then that the best and whitest shirts are expensive. Soni says that on bespoke orders he is currently making shirts made from delicate, 2×200 count of Egyptian cotton, the finest in the world—each will cost Rs.20,000.

It may not be entirely difficult to statistically plot the peaks and troughs in the Indian economy based on the white shirt: its collars, fabrics, buttons, styles and pricing. From salaries, nature of employment and public transport, fashion trends, insights on male and female dressing, housing and advertising—the white shirt maps the story of who we are, and how we live.