Michal McKay extols the pleasure of putting on a timeless classic.

When Coco Chanel introduced masculinity to the feminine world of fashion and turned it upside down, pleated pants, a loose white shirt and the cardigan became the perfect triumvirate in a woman's wardrobe. And, despite fluctuations over the decades in shape and style, the classic white shirt remains the one essential you cannot be without.

This comes thanks to its ability to flatter, no matter the figure. And it can't have missed your notice that its appearance on many a red carpet (think Tilda Swinton, Carolina Herrera and Audrey Hepburn) has much to do with its ability to switch the lights up to high voltage on any star smart enough to know a touch of simplicity will turn heads every time.

The white shirt is a lifesaver when choosing what to wear becomes less of a temptation and more of a turn-off. What feels like a lifetime of masterminding photo shoots can dull the pleasure of personal selection.

By the time you've finished selecting the perfect shoe, bag, belt, scarf, jewel to complement what took days of vetting in the way of outfits before even reaching the other side of the photographer's lens - choosing your own outfit tends to take a back seat.


Grace Coddington - that master of a multitude of magnificent photo shoots for Vogue - made a basic white shirt and black pants her go-to daily outfit decades ago when she discovered the joy of getting dressed became less so when covering her working hours.

A feel-good factor has also recently crept into the equation. The Witchery White Shirt campaign supporting the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF) has so far raised millions - watch out for it in the next couple of months. What better way to add a highlight to your wardrobe than by assisting a good cause? (Go to witchery.com.au for more details.)

Be warned, however. A white shirt can fall behind the times. What was the ideal shape a few years ago might not work today. The subtleties of cut that twist a trend, also apply to this closet classic.

Slightly wider or narrower at the shoulder, collar turned up or down, tapered or rounded tip, yoked or not, pleated, tucked, turned-up cuff or single layer and buttoned, double front, placket, single and double pockets, not forgetting the choice of fabric: crepe de chine, parachute silk, Swiss lawn, linen and of course beautiful cotton. Awareness of the give-away clues indicating a use-by date is imperative.

After Chanel set the scene of chic in the 20s, the 40s saw the Hollywood glamour idols emerge - Ava Gardner, Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall - making the white shirt straight-out sexy (unbuttoned and plunging over a mesmerising decollete).

Marlene Dietrich and, again, Hepburn (a style icon who even three decades later knew just what a white shirt could do for a gal) switched the masculine appeal of pure white cotton to pure femme fatale.

Probably the most anarchic gasp in recent records of this enduring staple was the moment Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue chose to put nine supermodels - Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer included - into the same white Gap shirt tied at the waist and on the 100th anniversary issue cover.

After that the white shirt never looked back. And if the latest spring collections in New York are anything to go by the strong appearance of the classic shirt as one of the top trends to watch indicates a shift in thinking from party central to a more disciplined way of dressing. Karen Walker, Chloe, Miu Miu, Alexander Wang through to J. Brand have all gone a little shirty. Time to keep your white shirt on perhaps?