Hey Mark. Wow. When a search hits the decade mark, you know it’s serious. Perfection is a high bar, but there are actually two shirts I wear in exactly the way you’re describing. I’m in a white shirt at least once a week and keep about six in my regular rotation, split between white poplin and white roxford. So it’s a tie. They do the same thing, you can style them in the same ways, and I wear them interchangeably. Totally, totally a matter of personal preference… whether you like something textured or something completely smooth.
I happen to like them both, so I’ll riff for a bit here in case that helps. If fabric stuff is boring, feel free to skip over the next three paragraphs.
So poplin’s the crisper, smoother one. It’s fine, but not too fine, with a 2ply/2ply construction, which means that each thread is itself a compact, 2-yarn twist. It’s durable, it’s dense, optimized for a crisp appearance with a soft hand… sort of the flash point of those two things. We have been using this quality since we started – so over 15 years now – and while we’ve looked at hundreds (literally, hundreds) of other white poplins over the years, there’s a reason we’ve stuck with this one. It just continues to be the best.
The roxford is slightly thicker at 150gsm, with a visible texture to the weave, vs. the poplin at 128gsm. I apologize if that sounds overly technical, but I think a number can be helpful here. (Another way of putting it: think about a pique shirt vs. a jersey t-shirt. One has texture, one doesn’t.) Its full name is ‘royal oxford’ – we started shortening it around the office years ago, and the name kinda stuck – and that’s exactly what it is: an elevated, finer version of a basic oxford cloth with a slight luster to the surface. This can add a bit more formality… when you want it to. I’m telling you, it is not too formal to dress all the way down. I find that when you pair it with denim, it kinda balances the fabric from a textural perspective… and I love throwing it on with swim trunks in the summertime when it’s gotten a little wrinkled. That’s how far down it can go.
(Funny enough, Ann disagrees with me on this – she sees the poplin as being able to go more formal. Which just goes to show you the versatility of these two fabrics. They go high and low so well that debating the ‘edge’ is almost a tomato-tomato thing. There’s always going to be some personal nuance here. Follow your heart.)
On the poplin, we actually make it two ways – in a dress shirt and in a sport shirt. If you think you wanna wear a tie with it at all, go with the dress shirt version. And that’s because a dress shirt can always become a sport shirt, but a sport shirt cannot always become a dress shirt. It’s like rectangles and squares. Part of that’s because of the way it’s sized – a dress shirt is sized to your neck, so it’s going to work well with a tie. I addressed this in a recent-ish column, but the only difference other than the sizing is the fact that our dress shirt has a lightly fused, structured collar while our sport shirt does not. Both of these white poplin shirts are going to look fantastic with everything from a blazer to shorts and lots in between. It just comes down to whether a tie is part of that vision at any point.
So we’ve established that you can go rox or poplin here, and it makes no difference as far as function goes. I can literally get four or five wears out of one of those, starting at the most dressed-up and work my way down, rolling the sleeves along the way. Here’s how it breaks down:
1. When it’s fresh from the cleaners, I’ll wear it to work with a tie and a suit, then hang it up at the end of the day.
2. Then, I’ll pull it out again another night to wear with a sport coat and a pair of trousers – no tie – for a date or a cocktail party. At this point it’s not super starched and perfect, but still plenty dressy.
3. I’ll get another wear out of it for daytime with a pair of jeans and camp mocs or loafers for running errands around town. It’s taken on some rumple by now, but still going strong. This is where I’ll start to roll the sleeves – a two-and-a-half roll that stops below the elbow.
4. And then I’ll throw it on with shorts and/or swim trunks… maybe a trip to the grocery store or just a trip to the pool in the backyard. Now the sleeves are rolled above the elbow, at more like a three-and-a-half roll.
I don’t go through all of these phases every time with every shirt (especially if I’m sweating to the oldies,) but the point is that you could… that either one of these fabrics can accommodate all of these occasions.
Speaking of sweating… a quick note on care. I get my shirts laundered at the cleaners with very light starch. Starch can degrade the tensile strength when overused, but in small quantities, it makes the shirt a little crisper and acts as a bit of a stain retardant. This is a personal thing — if you don’t like starch, don’t get it. And then for maintenance, to prevent that ring you sometimes get around the collar, I use these little rubbing alcohol pads. I don’t know why I started doing this (maybe a flashback to Stridex pads from high school?) but a couple of times a week, I will give my neck a quick wipe after the shower. Any dermatologists out there can tell me if this is a bad idea, but it really helps. I’m still using soap and a washcloth beforehand (shoutout to Swedish Dream) but the extra wipe makes a difference. And this should help with longevity on all your shirts, not just the white.
And on that note: nothing lasts forever, but especially not white. You’re gonna need to refresh your white shirts periodically. And if you’re wearing it formally, it needs to be bright white. Once you start to suspect some dinge, move it to the back of the closet and limit it to phases 3-4. By this point, it’ll be pretty worn in and softened up, and you’re gonna like the feel of the fabric too much to toss it. Wear it around the house for gardening, bumming around, whatever. Or tie-dye it. Give it to your kids for an art smock.
Mark has a very clear idea of how this white whale of a white shirt is going to fit into his closet, but for anyone else, let me just give you some encouragement. It might seem like a blank canvas for stains and spills… and that’s fine. It’s all in the attitude. It’s going to get dirty and you’re going to clean it. And while it’s the obvious choice under a suit, the simplicity with just an oldish pair of jeans is one of my favorite combinations of all time. In fact, I wore a white poplin shirt on my second date with Ann. That and a pair of stone-colored jeans. I guess it worked.
Okay, Mark. Wishing you the best on your search, and hoping at least one of these fits the bill. White on.