Lauren Bravo writes: There are few places I like to see the word ‘classic’. Classic cars, Penguin Classics, maybe a classic episode of Have I Got News For You. But generally, any place you find the word ‘classic’ is not a place I want to be. ‘Classic’ denotes dull. ‘Classic’ means “first thing we came up with, couldn’t be arsed to make it more exciting”. That’s how it is with crisps, that’s how it is with shower gel and that’s how it is with clothes. Yes, this week I would like to launch the backlash on ‘classic’ wardrobe items – or, as the phenomenon shall be known, The Curse of the Plain White Shirt.
It’s one of those oh-so-helpful nuggets of advice that we girls are raised on, along with rubbing half a lemon on your elbows and wearing Vaseline with socks to bed. Women’s magazines have been peddling this myth for decades. For some, at the Woman’s Weekly/Essentials/Good Housekeeping end of the scale, it’s their bread and butter, making an appearance on a pretty much monthly basis; but even the savvier glossies are guilty of dredging it up from time to time. The legend goes something like this: “Every woman should own a plain white shirt. That is the secret of happiness.”
“Furthermore,” the myth continues, “every well-dressed wardrobe should be built on a foundation of ‘classic’ items (or, if they’re really devout, they’ll use that other word, the one that’s worse than classic – ‘basic’. Yeuch). These classic items should ideally be as expensive as you can afford, and as boring as you can bear. In addition to the plain white shirt, you must have: a beige trench coat, a grey cashmere sweater, a pair of straight-cut jeans, and a black shift dress. Then, and only then, will you be complete as a woman.”
So colossal is the wrongness of this theory that I’m not quite sure where to start, but the white shirt seems as good a place as any. There are 30 million women in the world, and of those 30 million, about 12 look good in a plain white shirt. For the rest of us, the results veer along an increasingly unflattering spectrum from School Prefect to Apprentice Contestant, via Checkout Assistant in BHS. White shirts present a minefield of staining risks, gaping issues and the eternal bra conundrum (the magazines say flesh coloured, but then the magazines HATE US. Who should we trust?).
Likewise the trench coat. A better suggestion, maybe, if we could have it in teal, or purple, or a nice cheery red. But no, ‘classic’ items tend to occupy a narrow colour palette. That is, beige. Beige and its deformed sisters, fawn, camel and stone. While we all have occasional mac fantasies (I favour Big Mac fantasies), of running through Parisian streets in pursuit of a lost balloon or something equally charming, we know the truth. The only time you’ll ever have fun in a trench coat is when you’re naked underneath it on someone’s doorstep. Or if you’re a spy.
Then there’s the black shift dress, an item we can thank Audrey Hepburn for bestowing on us and Princess Di for perpetuating. Shift dresses are a nice idea. So chic! So subtle yet sexy! What a shame then, that they appear not to have been designed to clothe the female figure but an Ikea flatpack shelving unit. Shift dresses hug the bits you want to forget, hang over the bits you want to hug, and squeeze that little pocket of underarm flab out to say hello when you thought you’d banished it forever.
There is also something unavoidably smug about wearing a shift dress. However much you try to Gok it up with jazzy accessories, it will always look uncomfortably corporate. It’s a look that says ‘I head up a successful sales team, do yoga in my lunch hour, bake nutritious dishes for my five pristine children and never chip a nail on my Blackberry’. And until I either accomplish all of those things, or become Audrey Hepburn, it’s a ‘classic’ I won’t be investing in one any time soon.
So the magazines can try as they might, I am not falling for it. Happiness takes many different forms, but I’m pretty sure I can live a long and fulfilling life without needing a plain white shirt in it. The day a ‘classic’ garment enters my wardrobe will be the day I forget how to have fun. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to rub lemons on my elbows and have an early night. Pip pip.