Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ode to the Little White Shirt

There is nothing that captures the essence of summer as quintessentially as the little white shirt. Pure white in nature's own crisp cotton, it hearkens to a time when summer meant taking strolls along a shady boulevard while licking an ice cream cone or sitting on the porch swing with friends while sipping lemonade. Timeless, seasonless, and completely trend-proof, the little white shirt has nevertheless managed to come front and center in this summer's trend lineup. It's as though every designer has been reborn into the days of June Cleaver -- infinite rows of white shirts cluster on racks in every store. And yet, never have I seen so many varieties of the white shirt with such a smorgasbord of detailing options.

I became acutely aware of this while shopping recently for another summer staple: bright cami tops. Never one to seek out stark white in its most sterile form, I generally make a beeline for island hues of coral, aqua, and lime green in the summer, punchy crimsons and cocoas in the fall and winter. This is particularly key for a gal of pasty complexion who manages to barely break a warm beige in the summer months. I shun white most of the year as it does nothing for my skin tone. Ivory, on the other hand, is a totally different world, a world that makes me feel as though my skin actually glows. It's no surprise that I own at least 3 ivory coats and an impressive selection of ivory sweaters. But white -- well, white is tough to pull off most of the year.

And, yet, I keep in my closet about half a dozen white button down shirts in the hope that one day, the summer sun will shine in just the right angle to give me an ever-so-slight tan. On that day, I will put on white and look like a bronzed goddess swathed in a white linen tunic dress gracefully touring the Mediterranean in a gleaming white yacht, champagne flute in hand. The fact that I neither live near the Mediterranean nor own a yacht has little bearing on this fantasy.

Granted, I shouldn't have been out shopping in the first place, as my frugal hubby half had put me on a rather tight leash of late. Following my April purchase of a brand spanking new Coach Carly Large Shoulder Hobo in a refreshing shade of -- what else -- ivory, adorned with chic brown leather straps and strategic gold details, I was supposed to be chaste. Particularly as the purchase had been generously funded by my better half, in part as a reward for my hard work over the past months. And while no one can argue that I got a pretty good deal on it ($400 for a $500 bag), it can't be denied that my sweetie had every right to restrict my shopping activity--at least for a little while. Especially because we had grandiose plans of revisiting Italy (hence, my Mediterranean fantasy) for our second wedding anniversary. And I don't mean for a 4-day Roman holiday, either. When we finally get the gumption to leave the country, we like to take our time, say, 3 or 4 weeks of time. So you can imagine the hefty savings we've been striving to come up with for the big occasion.

Which is why I felt just slightly guilty after I was, ahem, caught red-handed receiving a package from J Crew. Even though I insist to this day that I placed the order in June, safely 3 months after my Coach bag purchase, and fairly within the timeframe that my husband had agreed. And he insists to this day that he didn't give me carte blanche to shop in June but, rather, that he was going to discuss allowing me to begin shopping in June, and -- get this -- that he reserved the right to approve anything I purchased. Can you believe it? A year ago, I was blissfully spending into eternity, and now, I'm being audited and restricted. This, after I just spend $200 on new summer clothes for -- not me -- him! But he was right. I mean, he had promised intense shopping in Italy, and this time, we would actually stop into those little outlets on the side of the road in Tuscany -- the ones that said "Gucci", "Prada", and "Tods" on the front.

So anyway, one fine day... actually, one sweltering, 102-degree Saturday with 70 percent humidity , after I had whined all morning about not being allowed to attend the annual Armenian festival in Old Town due to the heat and thus missing out on some tasty grilled kabobs, he got tired of hearing me complain. He began pressuring me to go to the nice air-conditioned mall just to get me out of the house, and I kept protesting that I didn't want to go shopping. What I meant, of course, was that I didn't want to go window shopping. I mean, it's like sending a recovering alcoholic to a frat party: why bother going to the party if you ain't gonna drink? It's not like the food is great. Eventually though, he won, and I went on my merry way to "window shop." Well, that lasted for about 20 minutes.

Normally, but about mid-summer, I get positively bored with the retail selections. All the good summer stuff comes in by April and May, so by the 3rd weekend in June, you're rummaging through the sale bins battling it out with someone over $9 tees inscribed with Sassy" and "Beach Bunny" (and similar prose) and $15 micro-shorts (the kind that barely cover your butt cheeks, let alone any part of your thighs). Forget the smart walking shorts -- they were long gone by April. Pretty sundresses in actually flattering ladylike patterns? Snapped up in May for all the horse races and summer teas. Now you're left with the same boring gray-blue striped seersucker skirts and either hoochie-mama halters or matronly knit vests in most unflattering shades of electric blue and Bubbalicious purple.

Not so this time. The racks were resplendent with gorgeous silks and cotton voiles in finely tailored cuts and hand-embellished with chic, feminine additions like bows, ties, and mother-of-pearl buttons. And I sprung for them all, carrying home a bevvy of bags from an impressive selection of stores. Not only my usual J Crew and Macy's rations, but a little bit from Arden B, a smattering of Bebe, a jackpot from the Limited, and even an unexpected find from Ann Taylor. The Limited has been surprisingly resourceful this year, adding a whopping 7 tops to my wardrobe. Sadly, Ann Taylor Loft has lost that loving feeling for me, turning into a trite wasteland of wholly uninspired silhouettes. Fortunately, Ann Taylor proper appears to have redeemed themselves this season, presenting a solid collection of lovely, well-cut pieces in dramatic yet flattering colors and prints.

Bebe was the real surprise though. Usually not exactly `my cup of tea -- unless I'm looking to channel dominatrix or bombshell secretary on a mission to bed the boss. On this occasion, however, Bebe was teeming with Heidi-inspired dirndls , almost-wholesome cuts of peasant blouses, and even clean-ish puffed-sleeve white shirts with very feminine ties and ruching. And lots of innocent white across the board.

What struck me the most though was the irresistible range of choices in the ultra-basic, tried and true white shirt. Now, we're all fans of the traditional white button-down style. Nothing exudes Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn like an expertly-tailored, fitted button down shirt. But instead of your selections consisting primarily of (yawn) the short sleeve and long sleeve versions (with a few 3/4 sleeved options thrown in here and there), there are entirely new categories this season. Sure, some of these have existed before in other incarnations, but never have so many styles, shapes, and accoutrements been available at once - on the very same rack.

We've got the half button-down, full button down, side zip, and wrap versions. We've got all of the the above with waist sashes and belts. We've got puff sleeves, camp sleeves, scalloped sleeves, cap sleeves, bell sleeves, tucked up, tucked in, shirred, and rolled up. We've got portrait collars, ruffle collars, shawl collars, notched collars, Peter Pan collars, wrap collars, and no collars at all.

Then there is the cornucopia of embroidery choices. A perennial favorite of mine is Swiss dot, which J Crew always manages to perfect. Other patterns huge nowadays are eyelets, either handmade or laser-cut. J Crew again nails this delicate (and expensive pattern). Peasant embroidery is running amok with primitive floral and garden details. Pin-dot crochet is popping up everywhere as well, most of it not very attractively in my opinion- but then, I never was a fan of crochet. I am, however, a sucker for cute bows and ties, especially with feminine 50s era necklines.

The designs are all over the map, literally. There are French-inspired cap-sleeved numbers with little knife pleats down the torso -- cute and innocent, but with flattering bust seaming and a wickedly plunging button placket. Tuxedo stripes with ruffed button plackets have been making a comeback since last summer, but now ruffles have spiraled out of control and become their own fashion staple. Mexican fiesta blouses with floral motifs, and loads of Greek-style tunics with geometric embroidered patterns fight for closet space with Bohemian pintucked tunics -- all of which have slowly crossed the dubious line between business attire and casualwear.

So what's a girl to do? I say, scoop it up! At least that's what I did. Not content with missing out on so many well-interpreted styles of this perennial classic, I went back for another shopping spree. This time, I sought out only one color: white. Blending unique design and perfect tailoring, I sought to balance structured poplin staples with gauzy casual varieties. This exercise even inspired me to catch a little sun so I'm not so dreadfully pasty against all my new crisp white shirts. Now, I actually have a bit of a glow, which again forces my mind to wander into a dangerous fantasy...

I am overcome with the urge to hop on a plane, ferry to Capri, and lounge on a beautiful white yacht while sipping a chilled limoncello. I'll be dressed in a breezy sheer white tunic dress -- perfectly accented by gold sandals, tortoise-shell sunglasses and a bright turquoise necklace. I'll magically begin speaking Italian so that I can call out to my tanned and nicely toned, dark haired cabana boy and request a portion of freshly sliced fruit that he will then hand-feed me. I'll wave to Hollywood celebrities and assorted European royalty, and they'll invite me to their larger, more luxurious yachts for cocktail dinners alfresco. Life will be a symphony of white skies and azure waters as we drift off into the golden sunset. No wait, that's the Dolce and Gabanna Light Blue perfume commercial.

But a girl can dream, can't she?

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