The Monochromatic Power of the White Shirt

‘The whiteness is inseparable from the violent action that separates it out.’

Anders Olsson, Century of Innocence: The History of the White Monochrome

THE WHITE SHIRT: A neutral surface and the basis of a man’s wardrobe – according to many-a-style manual. And thus, the white shirt is invariably presented as a garment that serves as the canvas against which the wearer’s individuality will emerge. According to this line of thought, the white shirt focuses and frames the body, while itself receding quietly into the background. Considered in purely aesthetic terms, this explanation of white is reasonable enough – but metaphysically, semiotically and ideologically it leaves something to be desired. The white shirt has throughout history often been a mark of power, luxury and wealth, and to relegate it to the background is, still today, to underestimate its potentially more aggressive participation in creating meaning for the wearer’s body.

In Brian O’Doherty’s 1976 art theory classic Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space the author finds that the white walls of the art gallery confers a particular value on art by providing a clinically neutral space that allows the art exhibited to be evaluated on its own terms, shielded from the intrusion of the outside world. A similar logic might arguably be applied to the socioeconomic distinction between the white and blue collar shirt, and this dichotomy is indeed an interesting social construct. The condition for the pristine quality of the white shirt is that the environment is kept at bay. This is in opposition to the blue collar work shirt which relies on the possibility of it being dirtied. On the work shirt the results of manual labour are directly visible, manifesting a concrete – indexical, if you will – and rigid bond to economic value. The white shirt, on the other hand, rejects environmental and corporeal messiness; it rejects the social and subsequently the body – the body of others, but even, in its Platonic Form,1 that of its supposed wearer.

In a photo shoot by Maurice Scheltens and Liesbeth Abbenes, for the magazine Fantastic Man published in 2007, this rejection of the body is brought to the point of its obliteration. Here, exclusive white shirts are folded and pressed to form a two-dimensional surface that emphatically bars the garment from bodily inhabitation. Scheltens and Abbenes hereby effectively draw out the connections between the mainstay of the white monochrome in modernist art and the white shirt. The purpose of the white monochrome is often to deliberately evade figuration. It might be seen as the ultimate rejection of the representational objectives of figurative painting and hence as a completely self-referential surface, and so its meaning comes only from its rejection of meaning as such. Scheltens and Abbenes play on this paradox by presenting the white shirt as a refined, self-sufficient surface; an ideal state, preserved only through total disembodiment. While artists of the white monochrome rejected figuration,2 they were nevertheless not blind to the possibility that their blank surfaces could be filled by a meaning that arises in the projections of the beholder. The white shirt could be said to trade on a similar rejection of the meaning that comes from explicit marks (which is to say that it rejects direct contact and the ‘staining’ that might come from it) and in so doing it invites a more fluid and projective meaning to play out on its surface.

While the white shirt excludes, it is also an acutely receptive and highly charged surface, readily available for perversion. As such the white shirt is a space full of potential. Fashion designer Tom Ford has made much use of the white shirt as a surface for projection. Ford himself appears almost always in a dazzlingly white shirt with an impeccable, perfect fit. When not sealed shut by a tie, the shirt is unbuttoned – just a tad too much. Flesh pushes its way forward, intruding on the pristine surface. The effect is, of course, highly calculated. Through that one-button-too-much cleavage, the exclusivity of the white shirt is turned from something pristine and untouchable, into something highly tangible: sex, desire and glamour.

Like Lucio Fontana’s white slash paintings might be said to oscillate between presentation and disruption (Is the slash a framed sign? Or a violation of the pristine surface? Is it vagina or wound?), Ford´s chest gash results in a similar ambiguity.3 Does the aperture pose a vulgar display of flesh – a tarnish upon the pristine surface of the shirt? Or is the shirt conversely the mere background for the presentation of the splendour that is Ford’s body? This ambiguity is the very point. Ford weighs the poles of vulgar and exclusive against each other and comes up with an irresistible balance. In his white shirt, Ford’s body is both rarified, and a source of desire. Ford, fully aware of this tension, engineers it into a paradoxical lure of exclusion and invitation.

A scene in the film ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ (dir. Paul Schrader, 1990) perfectly captures this logic of the white shirt as a paradoxical surface that excludes yet elicits projective desires. Rupert Everett’s character is drunkenly inquiring into his on-screen girlfriend’s perception of herself as a sexual object. She replies by turning the tables of objectification on him: ‘People aren’t talking about my thighs or my bottom…The whole damn restaurant is talking about your thighs and your bottom’. The film then cuts to a wider framing of the restaurant; Everett’s character obliviously at the centre of the frame in his brilliant white shirt. At the same time, people around him – men and women alike – strain their necks to look at him. Isolated and unselfconscious, he is the hub of projected sexual desires. The colour white is an underlying but consistent motif in the film, a symbol of both suppression and projection.

This brief trajectory through the theory and practice of the white shirt gives evidence of the tensions and procedures of this garment. In its pure, idealised form it arguably represents the epitome of exclusivity, yet it is through wear inevitably tarnished by the body. The white monochrome in art, as literary historian Anders Olsson pointed out at the beginning of this text, performs ‘a violent action that separates it out’ and in fashion the white shirt debatably fulfills the same function. The power of the white shirt is as strong as it is evocative – through it we claim authority over the discursive meaning of our own bodies.

  1. See Plato’s theory of Forms. The ‘Platonic Form’ of an object is an impartial ‘blueprint’ of perfection and here refers to the white shirt in its ideal state, which, in order to maintain its pristine cleanliness, must ultimately exclude the body. 

  2. Monochrome painting is a significant component of avant-garde art in the twentieth century. As we understand it today monochrome painting is said to have begun in Moscow with Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White in 1918. 

  3. Tom Ford is himself a confirmed fan of Lucio Fontana. The visitor to his Madison Avenue store was once met by an eight-foot tall aluminum slash piece by Fontana. Ford thought the idea appropriate that a men’s store would, in his own words, “be designed around a vagina”. See Vanessa Grigoriadis, ‘Tom Ford After Sex’, in New York Magazine, May 29, 2007,