My 20-Year Search For The Perfect Shirt

Photo: Courtesy of Call To Style.
Laura Ruof is a fashion and beauty blogger at Call to Style. She Instagrams at @Call_To_Style.

My quest for the perfect button-down shirt started surprisingly early. As far back as I can remember, there was some kind of drama between me, my parents, and my peculiar shirt standards. First there was the elementary school days, fraught with the daily struggle of what I was going to wear every morning. I really put my mother through it — I remember her standing with me in my closet, trying to get me to wear my brother’s hand-me-downs. I only had the vocabulary then to refuse them because they were “boy clothes,” but, really, I was just not down with the material or the inelegant collar. “They're unisex!” she’d shout, which is always a weird word to direct toward a 7-year-old.

Another memory involves me standing over my father as he methodically ironed my shirts (even the unisex! ones), half making sure he did it the way I wanted, half studying his spray-starch technique. He later regretted teaching me this method, as it led to many moments of bewilderment over how one small girl could go through so much starch. Clearly, he only had himself to blame. I could never get my shirts crisp enough, even when they could stand up all by themselves.

I don’t know where this obsession with the perfect button-down started, but I have long known what I wanted, and that was a crisp white shirt, with a perma-starched collar and cuffs, long enough to stay tucked in but not so long that it was bunched up in my pants, was made of high-quality material, and was something I could afford on a dental-student budget. With all of those requirements, I realized my perfect shirt was basically a chupacabra, and it continued to elude me. Like a person searching for the perfect mate, I figured I was looking for love in all the wrong places, and was confident that when I moved from a small town to New York City, I would find my forever shirt there.

Except, no. I got by with some nice shirts that were close to what I was looking for, but not exact. I tried wearing men’s shirts, since I liked the cut better, but struggled with sizing and couldn’t afford to tailor them. At one point, I gave up on button-downs altogether. If I couldn’t have the one I wanted, what was the point? (This all-or-nothing attitude may also relate to my dating history, as I’m starting to realize that my shirt search and love life are strangely similar.)
Photo: Courtesy of Call To Style.
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But as the cliché goes, once you stop looking for love, it’ll drop in your lap, and my perfect shirt came to me quite suddenly in a very unexpected place. While strolling down King Street in Charleston, SC, this winter, I came upon a little shop called Shirtini. I immediately froze when I saw the crisp white shirts in the window. There were most certainly some rays of light shining down on me at that moment, and I definitely remember angels singing or harps playing or something happening that made me feel like I was experiencing love at first sight. I went inside and saw racks of neatly hung, perfectly starched button-downs of all types. White ones and blue ones, striped ones and gingham, I walked around wide-eyed, mouth slightly agape, not able to utter any proper words. I knew that I had found it. The collars were popped, stiff and upright, and the thickness of the material meant I didn’t need to empty a spray-starch can to keep it that way. The cuffs were the same, crisp and tidy, perfect for rolling up and staying up. Just looking at the length, I knew it would fit my body, and I could tuck it in without a fuss. I turned to the woman running the shop, and tried to think of what I wanted to say. “They’re perfect!” I basically shouted at her, and she nodded knowingly. I tried on a classic white shirt, and emerged from the dressing room with the pride of an Olympic athlete bringing a gold medal back to her hometown. I had won. I had found it.

Shirtini carries a few other brands, but my favorites were by Claridge & King. I stuck with the the basics on my first trip, a white one called The Great White Shirt and a blue striped one called The Ivy. Lin, the shop manager, told me that Claridge & King was started by two sisters who grew up wearing their father’s shirts. (Clearly, the concept of hand-me-downs had a different effect on them). Lin had fallen in love with Claridge & King after undergoing a shirt odyssey of her own. She was also wearing men’s shirts to try to get the fit she desired before finding Claridge & King at an Atlanta trade show. Given my love of menswear, these shirts felt like they were made for me.

I took in the simple genius of Shirtini, a small boutique aimed at selling just one thing really well. I love discovering small boutiques in new cities I go to that have things I’ve never seen before. It opens my eyes to more than just what is put in front of our faces in ads and common storefronts where we reside, because each piece is handpicked to be part of a bigger curated picture. You truly can find great pieces anywhere, be it a big city or a smaller one, in a vintage shop or a new boutique. They can be pieces that are so special they completely change the way you dress, or ones that simply wean you off a spray-starch dependency. This was about finding my perfect shirt, but it was also a lesson in fashion and one that transcends fashion; to never give up on your dreams but also to never, ever lower your standards.
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