SHIRTY SOMETHING

TRIED & TESTED; Plain white shirts have escaped the office and become a vital part of the casual wardrobe. Our panel collars six
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The Independent Culture
SOCIETY clothes designer Hardy Amies once described the white shirt as "truly naff". The shirt-wearing masses would presumably disagree. A constant best seller, the plain white shirt is the kind of garment for which the term "classic" was invented.

Style-wise, the choice is vast. From office best to clubland cool, there is a white shirt for every occasion. Diff-erent styles have their own history. The collarless "grandad" style, und-ergoing yet another revival, has its origins in the days when collars were bought separately. Button- down collars can be traced back to Victorian polo players who wanted to look smart while playing, but didn't want their collars flapping. There is the bonus of many styles being "unisex" - a plus for wives and girlfriends keen to boost their own wardrobe with a borrowed loose-fitting shirt or two.

THE PANEL

Sonja Nuttall, a clothes designer with a consultancy in London; Chris Holmes, a man proud of his "smart, casual" tastes but who hates shopping for shirts; Sharon Holmes, Chris's wife, who says she is on a quest to persuade Chris to splash out on some adventurous styles of shirt - not least because she is a keen shirt borrower; John Champion, an avid follower of fashion with a penchant for designer labels on his non-suit wearing days.

THE TEST

From the vast array in the shops, we picked out six shirts ranging from ultra-pricey designer names to high street and chain store staples. We looked mainly at casual shirts but also included a couple of more formal styles. Our panel marked the shirts for overall style, cut, quality and "feel" of material and value for money. Unless otherwise stated, all the shirts were 100 per cent cotton.

***EMPORIO ARMANI

Linen, pounds 115

Emporio Armani is the cheaper - though hardly bargain basement - "diffusion" range of the Giorgio Armani empire. This shirt was plain, with generous collars. Our panel had strongly opposing views. "Overall a good design, if slightly feminine in style, but the fabric is on the verge of looking cheap," said Sonja. Chris had similar reservations: "It has a kind of 'scratchy' cheesecloth feel and it's much too full. The collar is too big and cumbersome." Not letting her husband get away with criticising an Armani shirt, Sharon waded in, "Now that's the kind of shirt I like to see Chris wearing. It looks smart but not stiff. If he bought this, I'd be borrowing it." John was also enthusiastic: "I like the look - it hangs well. But people are paying more for the name than the shirt itself."

***NEXT

Collarless, pounds 19.99

The collarless look is most definitely "in" at the moment, with lots of high street shops having recently introduced a range. Next seems to have the widest choice of collarless styles. The one we chose was plain with one chest pocket. It proved popular. "This feels like nice thick cotton, almost brushed cotton. I'm not convinced by the collarless style and the sleeves are a bit too long, but overall it looks good," said Chris. Sharon was keen - "This would be a great shirt for just sloping around in jeans in - for me, not for him!" Sonja thought the fabric was excellent for the price. She also had a firm word of warning for the style tribe: "The collar only works when it is done up. Undone, it just hangs badly."

*COMME DES GARcONS

Polyamide, pounds 96

Widely regarded by those "in the know" as the current creme de la creme of designer names in men's shirts, the Paris-based Comme des Garcons company produces classic as well as trend-setting designs (suffice to say, all on the pricey side). We picked a "wild" rather than a conventional looking shirt. Made of poly-amide, it had a see-through, almost wet-look effect and is part of the Comme des Garcons spring/summer collection. Our panel were intrigued, but not quite enough to want to buy one. Three out of four gave it their lowest marks. Chris was scathing: "This feels like wearing a freezer bag, I'd definitely be worried about standing in front of a naked flame in it, or a radiator for that matter. And it gives off this incredible static." Sharon had muscles in mind: "This is a shirt for a man with a good body - you can see almost straight through it, so a puny chest is not made for it at all. I can't see many men going for this." Sonja was the only dissenter. "Well des-igned, this shirt is so simple, it just works. Definitely for the man who wants to stand out in the crowd."

***GAP

Button-down collar, pounds 19

A kind of McDonalds of the fashion business, the first Gap shop was established in the States in 1969, and since coming to these shores in the Eighties, the Gap name seems to have sprung up in high streets all over the country. A Gap classic, this plain button-down collar shirt was voted second best by our panel. "This is what I call a simple, classic shirt," said Sharon. Despite complaining that there was too much material around the midriff, Chris was impressed with the price tag: "Seems incredibly good value you could probably pay pounds 20 more than this in classier shops for something that doesn't look any different." Sonja was also impressed "Lovely for a casual shirt - the manufacture is excellent and the fabric is good for the price - I'd buy this for myself." John wasn't so convinced: "I like button-down collared shirts, but this one has a strange kind of bluey white - almost as if it has already been through a few washes."

**RACING GREEN

Plain cotton, pounds 27

The Racing Green company has only been going since 1992 but has made a name for itself as one of the most popular outlets for casual, American- style simple classics. Mainly mail order, there are also a small number of Racing Green shops. Our panel looked at a plain cotton shirt with two large breast pockets. The style let the shirt down. Sonja: "From a designer's point of view, the pockets and collar are over-designed - they make it look too bulky. The fabric is OK, but the design needs redefining." Sharon was more direct: "The pockets on this are naff - they make it look too Nigel-ish." Chris agreed but was impressed by the fit: "A lot of 'medium' size shirts are too big around the midriff, but this fits fine." John thought the fabric good quality, but also gave the thumbs down to the style. "Not one I'll be rushing out to buy," he said.

****STEPHENS BROTHERS (AUSTIN REED)

Classic style, pounds 49.95

This was our panel's favourite, a classic name and a classic shirt. Stephens Brothers is Austin Reed's own shirt "brand" name, although Stephens Brothers shirts are available at stores other than Austin Reed. Formal in style rather than casual, the shirt was generously cut with a stiff collar and cuffs. Our panel were taken by the quality, with gushing comments all round. "This is a shirt in the English tradition. Beaut-ifully made - the fabric reeks of quality - proportionally it's perfect too. It would make any wearer feel better for putting it on, including me. Top marks," enthused Sonja. Sharon and John agreed: "Yes! I like this. It feels really expensive, but at pounds 50 or so, it's not. It looks really well made. A shirt to be worn with a classy suit," said Sharon. Chris had the only negative comment: "It's one of those shirts you imagine to be a nightmare to iron, the sort you'd hardly ever wear because it would be too much trouble."

STOCKISTS

Next and Gap shirts are available from branches of their stores nationwide; Racing Green, telephone 0345 331177 for a catalogue, or visit their shops in London, Glasgow, Manchester and Kingston; Comme des Garcons, 49 Brook St, London W1, and selected designer shops and department stores; Emporio Armani, 187-189 Brompton Rd, London SW3, and selected designer shops and department stores; Stephens Brothers. Austin Reed, 103 Regent St, London W1 and at Austin Reed stores and larger department stores.

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