WHITE SHIRTS AND THE COMPLEX MEN
WHO CHOOSE THEM
Written by David Bedwell
Illustration by Ryan McMenamy
What do Gregory Peck, Robert De Niro, and Paul Newman have in common? They, and most of their characters, wear white shirts. Maybe there is a subconscious connection between iconic work and white shirts. Miles Davis, for example, produced two of the greatest records of all time, 1957 ’s Birth of the Cool, and Kind of Blue in 1959, and he did so as the white-shirted poster boy for Ivy Style, a major component of the modern jazz movement. There are countless other examples.
It’s 1953 and Paramount Pictures is set to release Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Movie posters flood Hollywood with Peck riding a Vespa and Hepburn on the handlebars. This image of Joe Bradley (Peck’s character), impeccably dressed in a gray suit and white shirt, threads its way into almost every scene throughout the movie and confirms Peck as a style icon for generations to come. It is well-known that Peck had most of his clothes made byHuntsman and required his on-screen and public wardrobe to be his personal clothes.
Does a shirt say something about the man, or does the man say something with a shirt? The answer is in the choice of color, white, and the evidence is clear.
1955 : Blackboard Jungle stars Sidney Poitier wearing white T-shirts. And later, in 1967, Tibbs, Poitier’s character in the award-winning In the Heat of the Night, wears classic white woven shirts.
1957: Steve McQueen shoots Wanted: Dead or Alive. Photographer Bill Claxton, watching from behind the scenes, has the foresight to then follow and photograph for most of the sixties the man who will be labeled by many the King of Cool. It is clear that his personal choice was a white shirt. Whether wearing a Sunspel T-shirt while driving one of his beloved Triumph TRs or a woven Brooks Brothers in a chase scene from The Getaway, as well as most personal moments in between, he chose a white shirt.
1960: Paul Newman is photographed around Cyprus—as a tourist, no less—while filming Exodus (the film credited with ending the Hollywood blacklist). And again, in 1967, a bearded Newman in Cannes is seen wearing a white shirt (probably my favorite series of Newman photographs).
1963: Clint Eastwood is sighted on the streets of Rome, off the movie set, hanging out, goofing around on a skateboard in a suit and white shirt. I was born this year. Maybe there’s some cosmic connection between my lifelong love of white shirts and skateboards . . . and Clint Eastwood.
1964: The British Invasion begins in rock-n-roll, and music is changed forever. Two bands lead the way and the genre: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Look closely at their press photos, or any archival footage, and you’ll clearly see the choice of a white shirt as the standard for both bands—notably made on Jermyn Street in London and impeccably tailored for each member. I myself am drawn to the club collar, choice of the greatest frontman in the history of rock-n-roll, Sir Mick Jagger.
FEBRUARY 24, 1969: Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, takes the stage at San Quentin State Prison. Although we know the famous Jim Marshall photo of him wearing a blue prison-issue jumpsuit, in every other photo from that show, including the album cover photo itself, you will find him wearing a white shirt. Note: At San Quentin was the first record I ever owned, a gift for my sixth birthday. I am proud of this fact.
1969: If McQueen is the King of Cool, with his effortless style and rugged confidence, then Newman is the Godfather. Although I agree with common public opinion about McQueen, there is an air about Newman that, to me, transcends it all and is difficult to describe or label. When I was young, my mom openly had a crush on Robert Redford, which was progressive by Southern standards, especially for a Mississippi woman in the late sixties. Her crush was undoubtedly influenced by the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that year. But all I could think every time I watched that movie was, “Mom, you picked the wrong guy. Look at the charming, smart guy with the blue eyes, the one on the bicycle in the white shirt. He gets the girl.” The white shirt gets the girl.
1976: The world is introduced to Robert De Niro and his character, the infectious Travis Bickle, in the cult film Taxi Driver. We’re left with image after image of a mohawked, gun-toting, and obsessive psychopath with a smile on his face, wearing jeans, an army-issue jacket, and a blood-soaked white shirt.
1989: Enter Homer Simpson. Over twenty-six years, he’s never really worn another shirt besides a white polo, and if so, he’s changed back into it by the end of the episode. The same goes for Peter Griffin. Since 1998, he’s worn a white button-up shirt. Can you imagine either of them in a black polo, or even a printed woven shirt? And they, too, got the girl. Let’s face it—without Marge, Homer wouldn’t last a year. And Lois . . . well, Lois is hot.
A few years ago my son, then a teenager, was rummaging through my closet looking for something to wear. “Dad,” he said, “why do you have all these clothes? You wear the same thing every day: chinos or jeans, a blazer, and always a white shirt.” I smiled, knowing a rare moment of intelligent conversation with a teenager—a conversation I’d been waiting on since 1992—was about to happen. “I never wear the same thing,” I told him. “Not one of those seventy-two white shirts is the same. And this is why. . . ”