A special commission for the 25th anniversary of GQ Magazine (the one with Rihanna wearing a snake on the cover. No white shirt – but then she’s not a writer and the snake might eat it…)
‘The Perfect White Shirt For A Writer’ by Hugh Thomson
Writers don’t need much in the way of presentable clothing compared to other jobs – if you can call writing a job, let alone a living – but the one essential item is that perfect crisp white shirt which suggests the clean sheet of paper.
I once saw Niall Ferguson command a literary festival. He was giving an interview to an attractive woman journalist at lunch, while other, sadder writers were hunkered down and getting their free meal; moreover, he was jacketless and wearing a white shirt so crisply laundered it could have been flown in from the designer that morning. No one else could get close to that commanding presence.
Tom Stoppard, Michael Palin, William Boyd, AA Gill – all can wear a white shirt with some style. It has a long literary pedigree: from Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the Thirties, Byron and Keats in the romantic heyday, an open white shirt suggests a mind open to new thinking, but one that is also unbuttoned – maybe, in Hemingway’s case, with a touch of chest hair.
Choosing one is not as easy as you might think. Too Marks & Spencer’s and you’ll look like an office worker having their lunch; too blowsy and, unless you’re Byron, you won’t get away with it.
In this celebrated ‘author portrait’ of him by his contemporary Richard Westall, even Byron doesn’t quite get away with it; but then he is wearing a cravat and broach as well. Maybe his publicist had pushed him too hard.
The modern writer has to content with the distressing development of the “slim-fit” cut: Paul Smith, for instance, sells far more of these that it’s “classic” (i.e. roomy) version. Writers are not designed for a slim-fit world, any more than they are for skinny jeans, unless they’re still living in a garret – when they won’t be shopping at a Paul Smith anyway – or they’re Geoff Dyer, who irritated fellow writers by proclaiming in the Sunday Times how hard he found it being slim. (What’s your other problem Geoff? Too many awards?)
Long periods of sloth, inertia at a desk and eating too many free lunches mean that a more than generous cut is required. Preferably with box pleats on the back for added ventilation: creativity may be 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration, but the sweaty armpit look will never convince a publisher, literary editor or fan.
Sleeves should be democratically buttoned rather than cuffed, both so you imply they are often rolled up and also because cufflinks suggest a banking, public school, aspirational world that you may belong to but do not wish to reveal. And being a writer, any cufflinks will inevitably get lost.
Tom Ford has said that when he puts on a white shirt, “it’s the same feeling as getting into crisp, fresh sheets at night: I just feel good in them.” Which is fine if, like Ford, you probably have a walk-in closet with nothing but freshly laundered white shirts to choose. Writers are not known for their laundry skills.
My own wardrobe has a gently decaying row of white shirts from previous years, many with collars that are past their best or sport more optimistic, slim-fit cuts.
Surveying this sad collection – the TM Lewin cheapie, the louche Italian designer one that would fit a voluptuous starlet, the short-sleeved mistake – I felt it might be time to get a properly bespoke shirt made by an expert. Particularly if, in the interests of journalistic research, I could get one for free.
Emma Willis is a beacon of light among the bland, stuffy establishments along Jermyn Street that sell shaving cream and braces. At her eponymous shop, she has made shirts for everyone from Adam Ant to Lucien Freud – who sent her an old, paint-splattered shirt to use as a template (but no, she couldn’t keep the old shirt, which might have gone for a considerable amount at auction).
She talks through the choice of material with me. James Bond wore a white silk shirt in the evenings and sea island cotton by day. That’s allowable if you’re in a hot climate and have a body like Daniel Craig’s but the trouble about sheer, almost translucent fabric is that nobody wants to see a male writer’s nipple. Voile compatto and light 80gm weaves are not advisable.
What’s needed is cotton in a good strong 120 gm, like a thick sheet of Conqueror paper, either in poplin – although even this is glossy and designed to show off a tie – or best of all an Oxford weave, which has a bit of texture to it. A good straightforward stand-up collar – not cutaway or button-down, which suggest you want to wear it with a tie – is an easy decision. Harder is whether you want tails long enough to tuck into trousers or a more scooped cut so that it can be worn out, in younger, Gallagher-brother style. No compromise here – because as Emma points out, if you want to start tucking your shorter, scooped shirt in, it can easily ride up to reveal a glimpse of unappealing stomach.
Whether bespoke or off the shelf at the sales, the one decent white shirt a writer possesses must be kept in pristine security, far from the slobbish sweatpants and greying T-shirts they wear when actually at a desk, or tablet, or whatever.
It’s worth it for the moment when you shoot the cuffs on that starched white sleeve, pick up a pen and sign a book from an admirer at Hatchard’s or a festival. Almost the finest pleasure that life affords a writer – only surpassed, as Clive James has pointed out, by the pleasure at seeing that one of the books of a rival has now been remaindered.
‘The Perfect White Shirt For A Writer’, Hugh Thomson (c) 2013