This global, classic fashion story never needs a prologue. But at times when it becomes nerve-racking to style it another way for an occasion, subtle tweaks may work wonders. Think a few stark shirts with low-key, concealed or subtle detail. New Delhi-based Amit Hansraj, who blogs at Indiandandy.com, says: “The moment you say ‘white shirt’, there is this visual of an extremely crisp piece, but there are new concepts in terms of styling (and choosing) a white shirt to work these days." He points to subtle variations in fabric, length, collar, pocket and buttons that are hogging the limelight.

New Delhi-based Yasho Gupta, menswear designer for Bhane, a contemporary clothing brand with an easy-breezy and minimal design sensibility, concurs: “When you think of a basic white (shirt), you instantly think the customary white or a Banker shirt. But you can experiment a lot via mandarin collars or play with different fabrics."

Mumbai-based Surabhi Popli, marketing manager of online bespoke shirt brand Bombay Shirt Company, says a white shirt is a man’s go-to garment. Popli draws parallels between this shirt and a woman’s little black dress. She believes that adding clever details, such as lining or piping in cuffs, collars, plackets or buttons, make a white shirt more appealing and versatile.

For starters, fabric is the nucleus of this garment. Invest in different weave structures to vary the fall. A plain twill and herringbone twill (a broken weave with diagonal ribs), poplin or broadcloth (a plain weave with a linear and softer feel), pinpoint (a plain weave with slight texture) and Oxford (a heavier pinpoint plain weave) are the usual bets. Twills are easy to iron and look formal, but are slightly difficult to clean. Poplins render perfect body to white shirts without fuss. And Oxfords lend a slight relaxed vibe without looking too sporty. But if you want to experiment, Gupta says, you can go the linen way. Wool and silk blends work too. But if they seem high-maintenance and a wee bit floppy for your taste, you can fall back on tried-and-tested cotton, she adds.

Of shapes and accessories

Next is the shape. Hansraj talks about changing the form to give it a different dimension. He says, “A new concept is longline, which is a longer length of shirt." You can wear it tucked to work or pull it out and wear with sneakers or other shoes like formal dress shoes or brogues.

Popli too stresses on playing with fit and length, but warns against wearing extremes—a slim-fit or super-relaxed white shirt—to work. “Only a well-fitted, customized shirt is advisable," she says.

Then there are the sculpted versions by haute designers, which can be worn with suits. New Delhi-based couturier and menswear designer Rajesh Pratap Singh describes one of his shirts, which he believes is perfect for both day and night wear: “The Baker is a hand-stitched and engineered shirt, totally cut on the bias (diagonal orientation of the fabric). It can be worn under a suit. You do not really see the details up close. But when you take your jacket off, one can see the stitching. You may wear it to an informal dinner after work."

Then you can pop in collars, cuffs and plackets. Classics like the cutaway collar with short points, extra-long collar points or regular-length points collar, rounded tab collar and their variations are getting makeovers. Bhane’s arrow-collar (with extreme points) shirts in Oxford fabric are a case in point. Gupta says, “Collars with a little concealed loop underneath to hold the button look classy too." Traditional cuffs like one-, two- or three-button, angle-cut convertible, French, round-corner or angle-cut French are also being tweaked like collars. Some come with hidden lining, while others have piping.

Popli veers towards contrasts. She says, “You could try inner-lining contrasts in cuffs and collars—with prints or in plain colours." The Bombay Shirt Company does Chambray (slub texture cotton) pipings and linings and a cuff named “NeoPolitan", which is a turnback cuff where both ends curve outward and have edging.

Tweaking common white dress shirt plackets—conventional front, French front and fly front—is another facet. These come with piping, contrast lining and what have you. But make sure the colours in all these elements are neutral and soft for a formal handle.

Finally, injecting colour or texture even into blink-and-you-miss details like the pockets, buttons and buttonholes of a white shirt can also take it to a new level. Hansraj says, “Having loops or tabs (even coloured ones) inside your sleeves adds interest." He suggests inserting a small explosion of colour through an Ikat patch pocket, contrasting colour in the buttonholes or the last shirt button. “You can then take your suit jacket off or pull your shirt out and you are ready to go anywhere in the evening without having to change," he says.

Popli loves the way black or white mother-of-pearl buttons or contrasting collar buttons can jazz up a white shirt.

All in all, the trick, say most experts, is to play it safe when it comes to sporting stylized white shirts and team them with classics, such as flat-fronted or pleated trousers and suit jackets.

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