1932: German-born American actress Marlene Dietrich (1901 - 1992) on a seaside quay in France. (Photo by Bruslin/Central Press/Getty Images)

Hanging out the white flag

It feels cooler, even where it isn’t


This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Remember when I wrote about the uniform imposition of black polo necks in February as an “I can’t even” sartorial opt-out? Well, that’s where I am with summer 2023. Only, white, obv., or whatever off-white most becomes one, be it chalk, cream, sludge or stone. Anything over 22 degrees, and I’m prostrate.
Last year’s 40+ malarkey nearly finished me, and this summer we’ve got that El Niño shit going down. Suffice to say, “I got nuttin’” until October.

It’s possible others feel the same, as Vogue recently went from referring to a head-to-toe bleach out as a (yawn) “summer staple” to a week later declaring it a bona fide global vibe: “Whether it’s on the red carpet of Cannes or the bustling streets of New York City”, ivory is apparently the thing. Hello, lightness, my old friend.

White may not absorb as many rays as dark garb. However, it reflects bodily radiation back to the physique. Still, it feels cooler, even where it isn’t, manifesting as fresh, clean-sheeted, perhaps because it must be perfectly so in order not to appear soiled.

There’s a purity to summer white suggestive of Victorian propriety. Yet, given that it is this era’s underwear it is suggesting, it’s not really as prim as all that, racily skirting the dressed / undressed boundary, bride and boudoir.

Nina Edwards’s new tome, Pazazz: The Impact and Resonance of White Clothing charts this non-colour’s frame of reference, from swaddling to shroud, via first communion and wedding white; taking in ghoul and klansman, monarchs and mummies, senator and straitjacketed lunatic. Dead or alive, or some infernal zone between, white’s ritual might will never not haunt us.

It is no less enmeshed with money and thus rank. Coco Chanel observed that the mania for white in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was a sort of post-traumatic stress craving for the “candid innocence and white satin” of a prelapsarian age.

More likely, it was a means of semaphoring “still rich, still rich”. Like milky skin before the Great Chavdom, whiteness suggested a refusal to get one’s hands dirty, and a wardrobe laundered by AN Other; a legacy that lingers in our white-collar drone.

If white says “Get moi,” it is the ultimate British screw you to take this pristine rig-out and deploy it as games kit, in pursuit of sport involving bright green smearing of the tennis, cricket and picnicking sort. Take that, foreign Johnnies! We’ll show you insouciance.

The Bianca Jagger-esque white suit is this summer’s white dress

That said, the aim should be Gatsby chic rather than oppression drag of the white man’s burden / sun never setting sort, south of France rather than south Africa.

If I have ever ushered you toward anything, allow me to usher you toward Me + Em’s Bound-Edge Cropped Blazer in Pearl (£350, meandem.com): dapper, jaunty, jolly Jack Tar without heading full frigging in the rigging.

So eager for it was I that I acquired mine on 5 February. Since then, my passion for this slim, single breaster has only sky-rocketed. You shrug it on, and summer is officially won.

I donned it for the Cannes Film Festival, surrounded by screen legends, and I was the being being gazed at. Such is the jacket — The Jacket’s — impeccably nonchalant prowess. Dear God, it’s even sustainable. Just get one.

The Bianca Jagger-esque white suit is this summer’s white dress. Everyone and their dog is doing one, typically with a natty-little waistcoat, to be worn with nothing beneath. I’ve got the Zara incarnation: £79.99 for the jacket, £35.99 for the slacks (search: “shawl lapel blazer” and “high-waist regular trousers,” both in ecru).

These are very much not sustainable. However, I hang onto my high-street purchases. My principle here is that of a beloved ally, who got hitched in a 200 quid off-the-rack number because she wanted to smoke and knock back the red stuff. It will cut the mustard should my audience have had a few wines, without spurring a crisis should said wines end up on it.

If you wanted a white frock that is an actual frock, I’d be tempted by one of L.K. Bennett’s bridal dresses, the Harlow, a sinuous, satin crepe, Seventies-does-Thirties affair (£699, lkbennett.com).

Otherwise, you will find me in NRBY’s exquisite white linen (Tabby Linen skirt, £110, NRBYclothing.com): soft, suggestive of one’s form without being knicker-exposingly graphic, it washes like a dream, with none of the hessian stiffness of lesser linens. Equip yourself with Shout Stain Remover Wipes (£21.53 for 36, amazon.co.uk) and sally forth.


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