woman with white hair in a lilac shirt

The power of the shirt

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8 January 2022

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ashleigh Young on her favourite shirt and how the right shirt, worn in the right way, can make you ready for anything – or at least look like it.

Many years ago I lost a perfect shirt. The shirt was a soft orangey red and had been my mother’s. I started wearing it when I was about 12 and wore it well into my twenties, at which point it was over 50 years old. How can I explain this shirt? It was the colour of a lipstick advertised in a 1970s Reader’s Digest and was made of a thin, thin cotton that kept growing thinner, as if preparing me for the loss. It had three- quarter sleeves that you could roll up and button back, until the buttons fell off and I couldn’t find the right shade of replacements. On its front were two pleated oblong pockets that I never put anything inside. An important thing about this shirt was its softness, a softness that spoke of fragility but that made me reckless, because as the shirt grew older and softer still I wore it more and more. Also important was that in summer, the shirt’s fabric – which in winter felt scrappy – read as floaty, even “diaphanous”. But the most important thing about the shirt was its shape. Unlike my other clothes, this shirt looked like it meant something. Like I meant something. It carried me through the years making me look like I knew what I was doing. When I think of the shirt, I can’t quite believe it ever existed. It was too perfect to stay for long. It was made to be lost.

There are many different kinds of shirt, many interpretations and remixings, and a deep, five-thousand-year history. How do garments like the blouse, the shirt dress, and – dear God – the shacket overlap with and diverge from the shirt? Does a true shirt even exist? Perhaps, like Jesus, it’s too difficult to say. Some will claim it was only ever an idea; others will say that yes, unquestionably a pure form of shirt exists. But hopefully we can agree that, while acknowledging its many incarnations, the shirt, or the idea of the shirt, has power. I don’t believe that the shirt’s power can be fully put into words – it is bigger than language – but I think it is something to do with readiness.

When I wear a good shirt, I feel ready. I’m emboldened by the structure that the shirt offers, even a soft, casual shirt. It’s both an aesthetic structure – the shirt redraws the unwieldy body into neater lines – and a structure of meaning. The shirt sends a subtle message that I am about to get something done. This is partly because the shirt has an air of masculinity, which society reads as ‘capable’. I am shallow and don’t care about challenging these norms; I just want to look like I know how things work. But what else? When I wear a good shirt, for all its constraints, I feel freer, because I can adjust the shirt endlessly. I push the sleeves up or button the cuffs down. I button the collar all the way up to my neck, or wear it open, a little bit or a lot or fully. With the shirt I can make myself into different shapes. The shirt is the best garment for the moody and indecisive, the all-at-sea.

A problem I sometimes run into with the longer shirt – this is more about me than the shirt – is whether to tuck. Do you tuck (and if so, how?) or wear loose? There are days when it is a headache to make the call. In a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David scoffs at a “tucker” – an uptight guy who tucks his sweatshirt in. Not only at the front, but the back – all the way around. He’s right to scoff: a sweatshirt is too thick to tuck, and most aren’t long enough for satisfying tuckage. You’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. But many shirts do lend themselves beautifully to tucking, and indeed only come into their own when tucked. Without that moment of restraint, they look balloonish and chaotic, like you’ve just fallen out of an airplane. On the other hand, an untucked shirt of the right fabric, especially on a woman, can be momentous – a radical taking up of space.

Like the tie, the shirt can lose some of its edge inside offices and boardrooms, and can go completely off the rails. The sight of a man in an aggressively striped shirt with over-large sleeves makes my heart sink, as does a shiny shirt in any context. A word here for Roman Roy’s shirts on the HBO series Succession. Roman’s short-sleeved shirts are almost always a bit too small, like a school uniform during a growth spurt; they evoke a man who is in many ways still a child, trapped in himself, straining at the buttons. I feel a twisted, almost motherly tenderness towards Roman when he puffs himself up in his too-small shirt. What I mean is that, like any other garment, the shape, fit and styling of the shirt can subtly erode its power, can suggest vulnerability and struggle rather than power. I would argue, though, that unlike the tie, the shirt has a dignity that can never be completely undone.

The oldest garment in the world is thought to be a shirt. It was found in an Egyptian tomb at Tarkhan and is dated to around 3000 BCE. When it was discovered it was inside out and all creased up, as if it had been taken off just a moment ago. Now it is displayed in a museum in London, this fine linen shirt with pleated shoulders and sleeves. Can we even still call it a shirt, if it is behind glass and no one wears it anymore? It’s more like the ghostly outline of the life that once moved within it. Most shirts are with us for such a short time, in the scheme of things, even those that are made to last forever. In the end all shirts grow threadbare, or we move on, or we lose them. Each time I wear a shirt, I am one wear closer to the last time I will wear it. But for now, in this shirt, at this brief moment, I am ready. Or, I look like I am.

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