My first white button-up was a Christmas gift from my mother: a narrow-collared cotton blend shirt with puffed three-quarter sleeves she bought at Macy’s. It was more tailored and crisp than anything I’d owned before, and I was wary of getting stains on it, so I wore it exclusively with a black shift dress that covered up the front. At the time, I had a job as a clerk in a museum gift shop, and the shift dress and buttoned-up comprised my most museum-job-like outfit. The dress was almost $40 from what I thought of as the fancier section at H&M; the one where the career clothes were. It had felt like a splurge, but like a smart one because it fit me well. The statement sleeves of the button-up emerged from the arm holes as the outfit’s two focal points. Black fabric forgives your peccadillos and blends you into the background; against it, white fabric makes it look like you tried to stand out. Together, I thought I looked simultaneously chic and like someone who worked in service. It’s my first adult memory of truly dressing for the occasion.
The recessed yellow lights of the museum shop were designed to be forgiving, too. They were there to highlight the richness of the shop’s jewel-toned silk pillows, and to convince paying members that big gold rings with druzies embedded in their centers like Troll doll jewels looked marvelous on their fingers. Because of this, the lights forgave my outfit’s flaws as well. I loved the shirt and I wore it a lot, so it got a little shabbier with each wash. But under perfect museum lighting, the dress didn’t have pills on it, and if I reached my arms up to grab a Nepalese scarf from the top tier of a textile rack, the stains that deposited themselves wear after wear under the arms of the shirt were hardly visible. When it came time to leave the job, the color of the shirt was no longer what it once was. I couldn’t wear it anymore; in daylight, its flaws were too visible, and its white was no longer white. It had dimmed with process and wear.
Clothes are constantly interacting with their surroundings. They’re touching coats and sweaty bodies and subway seats, and absorbing the material of human skin; it’s disgusting if you think about it for too long. But the white shirt is meant to look like it hasn’t touched anything. It projects invulnerability to the elements, like someone in a party dress with no coat who laughs when you ask her if she’s cold as you’re both stepping out onto the roof deck on New Year’s Eve. But its magic and melancholy is in the fact that it contains two ideas at once: as a garment, it’s designed to appear impervious, but is actually so very susceptible. When worn and cleaned properly, a white shirt can be otherworldly and beautiful. Is any garment more vulnerable?
To wear a white shirt is to understand the risk of a stain and then double dare the stain to bring on what it’s got. In New York City, fresh-fallen snow turns into ashy sludge within hours, and fine black dust coats the windowsills of my apartment even when my windows are closed, and I don’t know how to separate my environment from my clothes. Also, I was a latecomer to the practice of dropping off your laundry (a friend had to give me a pep talk to do it the first time because I’d only ever used coin machines), and so am not well versed in the art of separating colors and textures. In short, the sorcery required to keep a white shirt pristine in an environment that is constantly trying to stain you eludes me. I know that the garment has its origins in menswear, but wearers of menswear hide their pit stains under suit jackets. The woman in the perfect white shirt is a witch.
Failing at wearing it and keeping it perfect, I began to consider the white shirt for what it is, and for what all clothes that someone chooses for themselves ultimately are — a costume. The second white shirt I acquired (and still own) was an exaggerated spiritual successor to the first, a piece by the designer Viktor Luna that looked part-clothing item, part-bug skeleton, with huge, ruched sleeves that stood up by the sheer power of their formidable design and towered high above my own relatively small shoulders. It looked like it could almost stand up by itself, like it didn’t even need a human body inside of it, and when I put it on, it felt like the armor of a persona. I wore it to performances, and to a drag show, and really whenever I wanted to get looked at. And I’d learned something from that first experience with a white shirt — I needed to work harder than normal to keep it looking its best. So when I took it off, if I noticed the collar or armpit seam was turning dingy, I dropped it off for dry cleaning. This piece still remains in my closet, renewed into something perfect because of effort, and it rarely gets worn because I can’t rise to its occasion very often.
I’ve never tried again with a casual white shirt, though.The work required to maintain its breezy perfection is too much. When it comes to conveying effortlessness, I can’t muster up enough effort.