Reader Request: Work that White Shirt

Sweet reader Allison recently chimed in with this request:

There were a number of comments about the white button-down shirt. As someone who owns one, (and has to use the “hollywood tape” to keep it from gaping open), I’d love to see new ways to make it work.

It took me ages to embrace the white shirt as a wardrobe staple. Oh, I bought them just about every season, and wore them grudgingly when I felt conservative or uninspired. But I never DID anything with them. I would just pop mine on with a cute skirt and call it an outfit.

And kittens, the white button-down shirt is a canvas: It begs for adornment and manipulation and retooling. Even a perfectly-fitting button-down that hugs your curves will look uninspired sitting on your top-half all alone. You’d never expect to see a blank canvas hung at the MoMA, and you shouldn’t expect to look awesome in your plain old button-down. You’ve gotta tweak the outfit a little to make that shirt shine.

That doesn’t mean that outfits built around button-downs are difficult to assemble and therefore nasty, evil critters to be avoided at all costs. On the contrary! A few simple pieces quickly gussy up the plainest of white shirts, and many are items that you may already have lurking somewhere in your personal style arsenal.

To illustrate some of my favorite go-to white shirt looks, I’ve thrown in a few photos of myself, but also stolen images from my beloved blogging compatriots. Being an astute bunch, I’m sure you’ll notice that not all shirts in these images are, technically, white. You’ll just have to trust me when I promise you that the looks will translate!

Psyche from Economy of Style shows us that belts both thick and thin will do the trick. This one simple accessory can elevate your button-down-shirt look quickly and easily. I prefer embellished, colorful, or otherwise statement-y belts for this purpose, but Psyche’s thin burgundy belt creates a polished, professional look that is fresh and appealing.

S. from academichic throws on an adorable fitted vest over her button-down for a funky-casual look. Vests are everywhere these days, and I doubt they’ll be disappearing anytime soon, so nab one that works with your figure if you don’t have a flattering model on-hand already.

Or if a tailored waistcoat just isn’t your thing, you can try a funky sweatervest instead … or even an unusual or embellished tank top like my sequin-y one on the right.

Fearless Audi of Fashion for Nerds takes it all a little further by belting a gauzy vest OVER her button-down. So that’s three kinds of awesome and counting …

Kimberly of Fab Finds Under $50 sports another layered-belted look, using a contrasting scarf as a belt over her cardi and long white shirt.

And in warmer weather you can skip the cardi and just utilize a bright or beautifully patterned belt-as-scarf, adding both punch and polish to your ensemble.

Belts, vests, tanks, sweater vests, scarves, cardigans … all wardrobe staples, no? Nothing has been used to create these looks that is unusual, hard to procure, or specific to white-shirt-wearage. You’ll also note that a variety of body types are represented here, an array of personal styles are shown, both skirts and pants have been utilized, and looks both businessy and casual have been showcased. I mean, not that I’m BRAGGING, or anything … just pointing out that the white shirt is, in fact, a versatile little beastie.

Now, depending on how you’re built, the fashion tape that Allison mentioned in her request may be key. Your white shirt should be relatively fitted, with some princess seams to define your waist … but the trade-off there is often gaping around the placket. Different manufacturers have different ideas about how big our boobs should be, and investing in some Hollywood Fashion Tape or No See ‘Ems may be your best hope for a good, non-boob-revealing fit.

You may be looking at all of this and thinking, “OK, so I can’t wear my white shirt on its own, I may need to purchase sticky gizmos to keep it from sneakily revealing my rack to passersby, and I must remain vigilant to prevent myself from slobbing Arby’s Sauce all over it. And THEN I have to wash and starch and iron it to keep it looking fresh? THAT SOUNDS AWESOME SIGN ME UP.”

And you know what? I hear you. For years, I used the white t-shirt as my canvas because I could toss it in the washer, fling it in the dryer, and pull it onto my body with nary a worry. Button-downs take work to maintain and the sloth in me just HATES that. But I’ve noticed that any look utilizing a white button-down as its canvas looks about 16 hillion jillion times more chic and pulled-together the same look with a tee as the canvas. The crisp material and severe lines of a menswear collar create such a classic, elegant platform for accessories, sweaters, skirts, jeans, hats, you-name-it.

White shirts: A pain in the hiney, but frequently worth the hassle.

Top images via J.Crew.

  • MsDSpeech

    Awwww…sweet Sal! Thanks for thinking of me and all your other loyal minions who have white shirts sitting in the backs of their closets! I just got a great obi belt from Audi that I’m going to try with the white shirt. I also have a Mr. Roger’s-sized wardrobe of cardigans…something HAS to work!

    Great ideas – as usual.

  • Fell4fashion

    Great ideas for the button down. I have a few, and when I go to wear them, my creativity leaves me!! :)

  • mysterycreature

    That is a fantastic red skirt. Loving the suggestions for white shirt-wearing – I have never been any good at wearing shirts in general, and white ones in particular. I shall have to try it again!

  • Imogen Lamport

    For most people, go for a slight off white, rather than a bright white – it’s a much more flattering shade.

    Look for a white shirt with built in detail and interest, then you don’t have to do so much!

  • a brown-eyed grrl

    They are a pain, and I’m actually glad that I don’t look good in them so that I don’t have to deal with the upkeep! I’m large-busted and short and short-waisted, so every white button-down I’ve ever tried makes me look a mess.

    IF busty girls DO like them, besides the fashion tape, I highly recommend a minimizer bra. I’ve found that to be a huge help when I wear other kinds of blouses. Also, if the shirt has a BIT of stretch, that’s even better.

  • Christina Lee

    nice post with all the different looks!!!great ideas!

  • Jo

    Oh, thanx so much..I just love your helpful posts..Keep giving advice!

  • kittyscreations

    I’ve been avoiding button downs specifically because I couldn’t figure out how to wear them. Now I feel empowered to actually make them stylish. You rock, Sal!

  • Brande

    Why must the solution always be an effing waist belt! 5 out of 11 of the photos in this post feature a belt. On academichic, 28 (!) posts in March featured a belt. I was so frustrated that I counted.

    Ugh. I’m so sick of belts. They are flattering on about 10% of women, yet make up way over half of the posts on fashion and style blogs and are apparently the “solution” for about 80% of the style issues brought up on said blogs.


  • Lesa

    I am obsessed with no wrinkles and I live in humidity central (ft. Lauderdale) Any suggestions for a good no-wrinkle white shirt?

  • Sharon Rose

    Hi there-I have 2 white shirts, but I must admit, I don’t wear them at all often. You look lovely in yours!

  • Cal

    What are the chances…today I’m wearing a white button down, grey belted skirt, black tights, riding boots and a giant turquoise necklace. Like, GIANT. Love the blank canvas analogy!

  • Sal

    MsDSpeech: You bet, lady! Glad you found these suggestions helpful. Oh, and I love the idea of a Mr. Roger’s-sized wardrobe of cardigans. Classic. 😉

    Brande: I’ve got a post on belting coming up in a few weeks that might ease some of your frustration … but maybe not. It’s true that belts aren’t for everyone.

    However, I’d disagree that they only work for 10% of women: The women shown here are a variety of heights, weights, and shapes and all of us have deployed belts successfully to spruce up our button-down-shirt outfits. If you hate belts, that’s one thing. But if you just haven’t found out which type/style of belt works best for your body shape, that’s another.

    Belts are pretty popular right now, which is why you’re seeing them everywhere in the blogosphere. I’m sorry to hear it makes you feel excluded and frustrated, but no one is trying to be exclusionary … myself included.

  • elena-lu

    i can never find a white button down that look flattering on me, im very short and usually the sleeves arent right and then i just dont find it comfortable but i can see how a white top would be easy to dress up or down, i just dont have to do it with ;P

  • metscan

    My favorite outfit is the top left one with the thin burgundy belt and matching shoes. I don´t know why,but white shirts don´t look nice on me. Traditional shirts don´t do the trick either, maybe it is the collar?

  • La Belette Rouge

    This is one item I really wished looked great on me. I love them on others and they look crap on me.

  • Clare

    I love this feature post! I have a HECK of a time with button-down white shirts, but I still love their classic chic style. One thing I’ve found that works wonders is the magic of a sweater over the shirt:

  • The Seeker

    That’s a great post with lots of tips.


  • Nadine

    I love the look, but I can never find a shirt that fits me in the shoulders/waist/arms.

    Belts – they look great, but I won’t wear them because I find them uncomfortable. I’m a dress girl 😉

  • Brande

    YAY for clarity! I have a long-ish torso with a low waist, wide hips, and I’m only 5’3″, so I’ve learned (after trying wide belts, skinny belts, scarf belts, cloth belts, AND ribbon belts) that they just make me look very disproportionate. Add on a new-found weight insecurity and belts have pretty much become the devil in my book. New solutions, please!!

  • Frances Joy

    Where have No See ‘Ems BEEN all my life?! That’s the real reason I rarely wear my white shirts.

    Also, I’m looking forward to the post on belting. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to make it work on my body.

  • Pretty Little Pictures

    You know, silly me – i don’t even own a white shirt and its always something i know i’ll need. I just get a little bored shopping for them, which is no excuse!! Its a basic for crying out loud!

  • lisa

    I’m one of those gals who doesn’t own a white shirt, but these are great tips for the purple button-down I own that barely ever gets worn.

  • chic

    Great post, it totally made me reach for my white button down! While a lot of the comments on this post reflect a general frustration with this particular item, I’ve always been a big fan. But I also look for ones with special detail, like ruching, or I like the longer almost tunic-style button down.

    I just read Brande’s comment and I’m sorry that I added to her grief by once more doing a belted look today. But although I also initially resisted belting, i’ve come to really love it.

    Brande – have you experimented with different belt widths and tying it around different parts of your midsection to see if you don’t come to find a way that works for you? I played around with it quite a bit until I found what I liked and some outfits really aren’t improved by belting, but then it’s just that outfit, not your body that is incompatible with the belt. S.

  • lopi

    I get tired even by THINKING of ironing a white button-down! Mind you, I love short-sleeved button-down shirts in pastel colours and cute printed fabrics that (imprortant) don’t require much ironing, so I believe I’ll be sporting my collection quite soon.

  • Jane

    Great post. I don’t have a white shirt anymore (i dyed it black) so I will raid my sons closet right now!

  • WendyB

    White shirts make my skin crawl. I’m telling you, they will NEVER look good on me. They hate me.

  • ambika

    Hmm, this might actually convince me to wear one. I don’t actually tend to wear things with standard pointed collars either, though…

  • Sara

    DITCH the hollywood tape- I just went to Rebecca and Drew in NYC and bought shirts that are sized BY BRA SIZE!!! They're amazing quality and I feel like telling the whole world.

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  • Lahronda Little

    Although I am just now seeing this, it’s still a FABULOUS post. Thanks for the ideas! I’m belting my button-down tomorrow.