Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Letter from a white shirt

For all its problems, a white shirt is the easiest symbol of casual elegance for both men and women

Every time I have worn a white shirt, my lunch has invariably included sambar or something with tomato sauce. Every time I have held a glass of red wine, my shirt has been white—through sheer coincidence. Every time I have had to change a flat tyre, climb a gate, hug a tree, stand next to a person brandishing an uncovered pen, dunk a sushi roll into soy sauce or eat a drippy gulab jamun, my shirt has been white.

What has happened in each of these cases is fairly predictable, but what is astounding is that a white shirt has this uncanny ability to attract spillage or oil or an accidental paintball shot. Irrespective of what you do or where you are, if the shirt is white, a stain is just round the corner.

I shudder to walk past a buffet sometimes, expecting a spoon filled with dal tadka to come flying onto me.

Through my school days, when we were required to wear white on Saturdays, my fountain pen leaked—as they always do when held in the pocket of a white shirt.

In observations that have lasted several years, I have found out that on no occasion has my white shirt finished a day without at least one alien and unintended blotch on it. The last time, earlier this week, my shirt brushed against a drop of coffee that had been spilt by someone else on a table a while ago—unbelievable.

Casual conversations with friends has indicated that this love and then scrub relationship with white is not unusual or unique to me. A friend says he spilt palak paneer while dining at a wedding reception and though the paneer rolled off the plate and landed on his shoes, the palak bit found a way to his white shirt through his jacket—unbelievable again.

Why then do we suffer it? Why not wear a transparent rain jacket over a white shirt for protection? Bikers wear a hoody through the hottest of summers so that their white shirts do not collect dust during the journey. What makes the white shirt such a necessity?

For one, it never goes out of fashion—Arrow, the American menswear brand from Arvind Fashions, recently launched “the iconic white shirt" as a part of its spring/summer 2018 collection. This was inspired by the classic Arrow white shirt which was launched a decade ago.

White is considered sophisticated—its association with classiness comes from late 19th century England and America when summer white was a symbol of leisure and therefore a domain of the rich. Since white soils easily, it was not recommended for the working class.

It is popularly believed that white reflects heat, leaving you feeling cooler and making it ideal wear for summer. It “matches" with anything else you might be wearing—be it pink pants or mauve shorts. It also attracts less attention, is easy on the eye and requires no investment in time before buying—every self-respecting brand makes shirts in white.

White is also associated with integrity and a cleanliness of character, which is the reason why our politicians prefer it. When commenting about former FBI director Robert Mueller, a friend of his was quoted by The New Yorker magazine as saying, “He is so straight, he always wears a white shirt. He’s conscious that he’s a public figure, and he doesn’t want anything to compromise his integrity. Even a blue shirt."

White also helps because perspiration patches on colour clothing is not the most appealing sight when you head into a meeting. It’s also one of the reasons why Wimbledon has a strict white-only code for tennis players, because when the rule was introduced in the 1800s, “the sight of sweat through clothing was considered unseemly, especially for women". Also, since tennis was a summer game for the rich, they naturally wore white.

The disadvantages are obvious as well: the attraction to dirt being the primary one. You just can’t wear them during the monsoon and expect to walk past a pothole or under an awning or tree unblemished. At the end of the day in a humid, sticky place like Mumbai, if you have been out and about, chances are you will return home looking like Mandakini.

But a revolution is already on its way to amend these trivial issues.

An Australian-based apparel company has claimed to be making cotton shirts that have the ability to repel stains. Threadsmiths apparently use “hydrophobic" materials, some form of microscopic coating that sits closer together than water molecules, so liquids can’t stick to the fibres of the cloth, said a review.

Arrow says in a press release that its shirts have an unstainable inner collar and cuffs, and are wrinkle-resistant, which makes them ideal for repeated use.

All these innovations would be useful because over the years, I have been offered hundreds of remedial solutions for making white become whiter—including soda, bleach, lemon, salt, white wine on red wine, chemical stain removers and the good old washing machine. Robin Blue was a hot favourite in the olden days, with the danger of severe repercussions. It had to be mixed in the exact proportion or your shirt could turn, well, blue.

Yet, for all its problems, a white shirt is the easiest symbol of casual elegance for both men and women. It’s the reason why we all have more than one of them. White or light coloured trousers and linen shirts are brunch codes in well-heeled urban parties.

One of the reasons cricket Test matches are so much more watchable than one-dayers is because of the whites; their contrast against the lush green of the grounds, make them more pleasing on the eye and its players more gentlemanly. The stains against the clothing also an indication of how hard a fielder has tried—Indian cricketers of yore would not dive much because their laundry bills would then become higher.

I always have the highest admiration for a man who finishes a day without blemishes on his white shirt. It shows style and refinement. And perhaps that he didn’t travel much during the day?

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.

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