Shopping: When women get shirty

It doesn't take a man to buy a good shirt, says Rhiannon Batten

Spending money on a well-cut shirt needs no excuses this season - particularly if it's white and tailored and enhances a well-toned torso. "There's nothing quite as nice as a crisp white shirt," agrees Danielle Smalberger of specialist shirtmakers Hilditch & Key. After years of exile, the shirt is slipping jubilantly back into women's wardrobes.

Beneath the long grey coats and cutesy cardigans everyone, from city executives to would-be rock chicks, is wearing shirts this winter. Pauline Burrows started producing women's shirts 18 months ago, after female customers wandered into her menswear outlet and pestered her to design shirts for them too. Based in London's Oxo Tower, Burrow's collection of ready-to-wear and made-to-order shirts in Italian fabrics range from pounds 110 to pounds 140, and she puts the popularity of the women's shirts down to the fact that "they're so versatile - you can dress it up with a suit or down with jeans and it will look good".

Finding a decent man's shirt is not difficult. Walk down Jermyn Street in the capital and, among the rows of neat and sparkly shirts behind gleaming windows, something is sure to catch the eye. But until recently, finding the perfect women's shirt was not so straightforward. It has always been seen as a fashion item rather than a necessity and is often poorly made, badly fitting and too uncomfortable to bear a second wearing. Because these shirts are rarely worn buttoned up to the neck - let alone with a tie - manufacturers have got by, producing a sloppy product.

However, the current high profile of the woman's shirt means that manufacturers are taking note. For a classic white shirt, the high street is not a bad place to start. Marks & Spencer's women's shirt range has been designed to team with the popular mix-and-match suit collection. Shirts are available in various fabrics, colours and necklines, but this season's best-seller is a feminine take on the classic white shirt - a 100 per cent stretch cotton, plunge neckline shirt, smart enough to be worn under a suit, costing pounds 30 and available in white or black.

For something a bit different, GAP does a funky winter range of iridescent stretch shirts in silver grey, burgundy, dark green and blue for pounds 34, as well as a variety of classic white woven shirts in cotton for pounds 28 to pounds 30.

If you don't find what you're looking for on the high street, head to the traditional men's shirtmakers. Hilditch & Key has a good selection of ready-to-wear shirts. The company celebrates its 100th anniversary next year and stresses the importance of details, such as top quality fabric and patterns. A popular women's style this season is a white shirt with pretty mother-of-pearl buttons that costs pounds 69.95, but each Hilditch & Key collection always includes three or four white shirts.

A little further down the street, Thomas Pink sells three styles of ladies' shirts; the contemporary fitted shirt and the classic black label shirt for pounds 49.50, and the more trendy continental shirt in sheeny fabrics for pounds 65. Val Miki explains that the company developed this range after noticing that "women came into the shops looking for shirts for their husbands or boyfriends, and liked the shirts so much that they would buy smaller sizes for themselves".

The new Thomas Pink collection has been so successful that the company's new store, which opens on Monday at 74 Sloane Street in London, includes a large area devoted to women's shirts. It offers a smaller women's cut, standard sizing, larger sizes and a more updated look, including cufflinks to match. This will go down well with Joanne Williams, who works for a large City firm. As well as preferring a fitted style and a good quality fabric that will iron easily, her criteria for choosing a shirt includes it having double rather than button cuffs.

One company which has made the most of this recent interest in women's shirts is Sparklers. A few years ago, sisters Lexi Douglas and Henrietta Nettlefold were so exasperated at being unable to find high-quality, no- fuss women's shirts, they set up their own specialist business. Offering a single style of shirt in five colours, their first batch of shirts sold out within five days. The current collection ranges in price from pounds 39.95 for a classic shirt to pounds 72 for a silk mandarin shirt, and the concept is well-planned. Each collection is not only designed by women but is also made and bought by women. The mail order catalogue even includes a chart of fabric swatches to help the customer make her decision. The one area which lets the catalogue down though is the fabrics. The choice of chalky pastels, breezy florals and bold tartans could do with an update - and a simple, crisp, white cotton adding to the list.

For more information contact: Pauline Burrows 0171-261 1988; Marks & Spencer 0171 935 4422; GAP 0800 427789; Hilditch & Key 0171-734 4707; Thomas Pink 0171-498 2202; Sparklers 01304 830424

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