Former Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue Alexandra Shulman discusses her bestselling book on the stories behind the clothes we wear, plus the enduring appeal of the white shirt.
What do our clothes say about us? What are the stories they tell? Why do we wear what we wear? These are some of the questions I was trying to explore in Clothes… and other things that matter.
When I left the editorship of British Vogue in 2017, I had spent a quarter of a century working in the field of fashion. But I had also become a wife and a mother, experienced the loss of a parent and a divorce, gained and shed friends, wrestled with the demands of being a high-profile working woman and hanging on to the things I felt defined me. How did my clothes fit into that life? How do all of ours fit into the people we are?
The edited extract below tells of how that first white shirt made me feel a rebel. Later, they represent something quite different to me; they are the staple of the professional woman, the go-to for fashion editors on shoots, the item of choice when you want to look down-to-earth and unshowy as women, from Meghan Markle to Michelle Obama, Alexa Chung and Stella McCartney demonstrate. They dress up, they dress down – beautifully. White shirts are the shorthand for the real woman, the one who gets stuff done.
On my 10th anniversary of editing Vogue, my team put together a scrapbook as a gift. Inside the embossed blue leather cover was a collection of notes (reminiscences, compliments, jokes) and pictures from them and many of the designers I had worked with during that time: Alexander McQueen, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Donatella Versace, Phoebe Philo, Calvin Klein, etc.
Somebody had found a box of old transparencies taken during my first summer at the magazine, by the Italian photographer Oberto Gili, and included one of the pictures. It was part of a set of publicity shots intended to show me as the kind of person who looked like they were in charge. It was a headshot taken at a slight angle. I had a mane of thick dark hair, half pulled back and pinned up, the rest hanging loose, and I was wearing a white shirt… But before then, before Vogue, I had certainly had my white-shirt moment.
The Robert Mapplethorpe cover image of Patti Smith’s first album, Horses, was seminal to my teens. There she stands, the ultimate in androgynous insouciance, blowing away, in one shot, the flowing long-haired hippie ideal of femininity. She wears a white shirt, unbuttoned only at the neck, the cuffs rolled up, tucked into black trousers. She stares at us defiantly, challenging us to accept this pre-punk urban style.
That Autumn I was 18, and I saw her perform Horses at Hammersmith Odeon. After the show, I took the underground home and decided that the only thing I ever really wanted to wear from that point forward was a loose white shirt. No matter that Patti Smith’s white shirt hung from the skinniest torso, which was not the case of my own. No matter that her scratchy black bob, white skin and Modigliani neck lent her a patrician hauteur far from my round face and long hair. She was the person I wanted to look like. In fact, the person I wanted to be. A New York street urchin of indeterminate sexuality rather than a London private school girl trapped in an A-level curriculum.
As I recall, a white shirt wasn’t a piece of clothing that I possessed, so it was off to the nearest church hall jumble sale to find a second-hand man’s shirt as soon as possible. It’s possible that such was my desperation to create this image, immediately, that I borrowed one from my father’s wardrobe as an interim measure. But in truth, I don’t remember if that was the case or not. Of course, Patti Smith’s white shirt looked absolutely nothing like the white shirt I found in the piles of old clothes in the church hall… but it was my first white shirt.
Adapted extract from: Clothes…and other things that matter by Alexandra Shulman. Published by Cassell.
Portrait photography: Christopher Floyd
White shirts to wear now
We’ve always known the beauty of a white shirt is in its simplicity. These two newly arrived styles are wardrobe essentials – Alexandra tells us why.
The Split-Cuff Blouse
“It’s amazing how a small detail transforms a piece of clothing. These soft split cuffs in pure silk take a piece of clothing way beyond the everyday into something special, yet so simple to mix into your wardrobe.”
SHOP: Silk Split-Cuff Blouse
The Boyfriend Shirt
“There’s never a bad time to wear a shirt like this. The oversized shape is comfortable and easy, but with the narrow shoulders and neat collar, it still has a sharpness. It’s the kind of white shirt that you can rely upon whatever the mood.”
SHOP: Cotton Boyfriend Shirt
Our guest contributor on some of her favourite wardrobe and home pieces
For more pieces you’ll love, explore our new-in collection.