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A brief history of the white button-down shirt on the red carpet, and why it isn't going anywhere

a photo illustration of various formal wear shirt options and clothing making patterns
As usual, this year's Academy Awards ceremony will have the white shirt at the forefront, for both men and women. It's a black-tie affair, after all, and what goes better with a traditional black-tie event than a crisp white shirt? (Photo illustration Arsh Raziuddin / For The Times)

A plain white button-up shirt is not a status symbol. It doesn’t confer importance or become the subject of a cocktail party brag. It’s not a political statement or a bold choice. It’s designed to not be noticed at all. The great cultural purveyors of the white shirt — David Lynch, Fran Lebowitz — use the white shirt as the foundation of a simple, utilitarian wardrobe. However you want to define the grossly overused term “quiet luxury,” the white shirt is a staple of the trend. As usual, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony will have the white shirt at the forefront, for both men and women. It’s a black-tie affair, after all, and what goes better with a traditional black-tie event than a crisp white shirt?

Read more: Where did all the big pants at the Oscars go?

Shirt styles have shifted over the years, and those shifts are reflected in what you see at the Oscars. In 1972, Isaac Hayes accepted his Oscar for oringal song in a frilly lavender top that evoked both the dominant styles of the Black artistic community and the old-school white dandy. Ryan Gosling wore a much less outre version of Isaac Hayes’ shirt in 2017. In 2011, Christian Bale wore what I think is still one of the strangest Oscar looks of all time: a shawl collar tuxedo jacket with a black shirt, waistcoat, and inexplicably, a black necktie. He looked like an undertaker (not the Undertaker, which honestly would have been a pretty sick look if he had) or the manager of a particularly popular Chili’s.

Ryan Gosling during the arrivals at the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 26, 2017 at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, CA. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Ryan Gosling during the arrivals at the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 26, 2017 at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, CA. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

As bold as ruffles or a black shirt might be, perhaps the riskiest choice for a man at the Oscars of the 20th century was not wearing a tie. In 1995, Leonardo DiCaprio wore a peak-lapel tuxedo with a modest white button-up and no tie. It’s a tasty contrast between the high fashion moment and a laissez-faire attitude toward the whole enterprise. An unbuttoned shirt is like a constant vibe check or a walking “chill meter.” The more buttons undone, the chiller the vibe. Uh oh, here comes Leo, he’s at a 3! Better grab more drinks for the table. If a vape comes out, the meter is automatically at a 10. LaKeith Stanfield pulled an even wilder version of this move, with a wide-open collared shirt underneath a Saint Laurent jumpsuit.

In traditional times, wearing an unbuttoned shirt with a tuxedo would be considered bold. But these are not traditional times. The Oscars are a reflection of where the culture is and where it’s going. It’s a proving ground for the aesthetics that will come to dominate the next few years in film and fashion. Maybe we don’t see the impact right away, but all it takes is a glance back to the past to see the moments that pushed our perspectives on dressing forward. In 2022, Timothée Chalamet arrived at the Oscars in a sparkling black Louis Vuitton suit. The suit alone might have been unremarkable, but the simple act of not wearing a shirt with it made the look unforgettable. A bare chest! At the Oscars?

The white shirt is a versatile object, something that truly does go with everything.

The cliche that absence makes the heart grow fonder is apt here, in more ways than one. Chalamet cemented his place as a menswear icon, but he also made fashionable people around the world ditch their shirts for skins. More recently, A-list actors have been adding chest-baring tank tops to their red carpet repertoires. Austin Butler wore a Gucci tank underneath an elegant black coat. It’s technically a shirt. Or at least part of a shirt, considering it doesn’t have sleeves. Even a luxe tank makes me long for a well-tailored white shirt. Perhaps I’m too old, too stodgy, or even too hairy to completely forsake the shirt. The more the shirt becomes optional, the more I miss it. The more I think about what it represents, and the more I want to wrap myself inside a simple, well-made shirt.

Timothee Chalamet
Timothee Chalamet attends the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

I booked an appointment with my longtime tailor, Art Lewin, a few weeks ago, during the final mad dash through awards season. Of course, I had no events to attend this season. This is the 39th year of my life where I was not nominated for an Oscar. It’s starting to feel like I’m cursed. But I also haven’t made a film yet, so that might be my first mistake. Art had made a formal shirt for me with a spread collar back in 2022, monogrammed with my initials on the cuff. He also gave me a removable band of standard buttons that I could replace with studs once I finally have an event where wearing studs on a tuxedo shirt is acceptable and expected. Studs, like cufflinks or a cummerbund, are one of those elements of the tuxedo that seem quaint and highly optional today but that you still see on the red carpet.

This time, I wanted an everyday shirt. Something that I could dress down with more nontraditional tailoring. Something I could dress up if I wanted to. The white shirt is a versatile object, something that truly does go with everything. It’s the five-tool player of the wardrobe and I wanted something that could step up and be the star if called upon.

Read more: The bow tie can set you free with tastefulness. But this is not a tasteful time

A white shirt is like a physical manifestation of order, of tidiness, and of whatever elements of oppression we still apply to getting dressed up. A collar wraps around your neck to constrain you. The white is delicate, prone to staining, and requires numerous trips to the dry cleaner. I’ve already started to see the early signs of staining on the neck and the cuffs. More than once, I’ve found myself trekking in the dead of night to Milt & Edie’s in Burbank to rescue a white button-up that’s in danger of falling off a cliff. A white shirt is a canvas for your imagination, but it can also be a canvas for a glass of red wine or the chicken parm at Dan Tana’s.

It’s a gamble to wear a white shirt, especially at a heavy-traffic event like the Oscars. I picture armies of assistants, publicists and family friends carrying tote bags full of Tide sticks for Robert Downey Jr. or Martin Scorsese. Those are two nominees who very likely will not be baring chest and will wear shirts. Though, Scorsese is a notorious menswear fan with impeccable taste in tailoring who is being feted by Giorgio Armani the night before the awards ceremony. Who knows, he might have been fully pilled by his TikTok’ing daughter and decided to shun the shirt completely. Trends have a habit of trickling down like that. But a white shirt is not a trend. It’s foundational and it’s formalistic, but it’s not going anywhere.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.