On the runway, on the street, even in the White House, fashion is bleaching it out as women wear all-white ensembles to make a statement. Here’s how it became the pigment of our imagination
Has style been whitewashed? What explains fashion’s current obsession with putting on a white outfit, throwing on a white blazer, adding a white belt, stepping into white sneakers or heels and finishing it off with, white accessories? Not since the Stormtroopers were deployed in Star Wars in 1977 have we seen a legion of white-clad followers this large and loyal.
On fashionable stretches in Western cities, where navy and beige used to dominate, street style now overwhelmingly includes sumptuous layers of cream and ivory. On Instagram, #WhiteOnWhite is a byword for chic monochromatic ensembles that range from floaty and bohemian to structured and formal. It’s on the red carpet, as celebrities find ways to carry off dramatic white gowns even with no plans to elope later.
At Coachella, the mothership for rich milliennials, if you’re not in some combination of white satin camisole, ripped shorts, embroidered maxi dress, lace bustier, crochet poncho, mesh ghaghra and ankle boots, don’t bother going.
“It’s just become everyone’s go-to look,” says film costume and footwear designer Sheena Sitlani. She noticed white inching towards popularity two years ago, built literally from the ground up. “We fell for white sneakers and then just kept adding more white,” she says, laughing. Social media, particularly Instagram, did what it does – amplifying the trend and spreading the word.
Think of white-on-white not as the colour of the year but the mood of the time. If the 1980s were bathed in electric blues and pinks, and goth girls of the 2000s favoured all-black, we seem to overwhelmingly prefer a blank palette as the decade changes.
White is even back in politics. In February, more than 45 women members of the US House of Representatives wore all-white to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, echoing the unofficial uniform of America’s suffrages, and support the goals of the women who just began their terms in office. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even added a cape.
Wearing white has always been a statement. Ancient Romans draped it on to advertise their citizenship and loyalty. For the Chinese, it represents reincarnation. In Islam, white is the ultimate in purity.
Upper-class Europeans have used it for over two centuries to show off their ability to stay spotless while the working classes did the dirty work. Brides wear it as a symbol of chastity. American elites have long considered Labour Day (the first Monday in September) to mark the end of summer, and refuse to wear white the rest of the year.
In 1998, a Black man used the colour to show the White world he’d arrived. When African-American rapper and music mogul Sean Combs (then known as Puff Daddy) moved into the Hamptons, where New York’s rich and powerful holiday, he didn’t wait to be accepted by the community. He threw himself a welcome party, inviting White neighbours and celebrities to an over-the-top all-white celebration. The décor was pure white, so were guests’ clothes, and you could be turned away for wearing even beige shoes. The party became an annual ritual, lasting until 2009 and inspiring all-white summer parties around the world.
Pure and simple
Indians have a mixed relationship with white. It’s largely been the colour of mourning, and is reserved for unadorned Hindu widows. “Bollywood costumes changed all that,” says Sitlani. By the ’60s, as films were colourised, white saris and salwar-kameezes stood out against multi-hued backdrops (think of Asha Parekh, Mumtaz, and Sharmila Tagore). Yash Chopra heroines wore white — draped, flowing, shimmering and sexy. It didn’t take long for women to give up tradition for trendiness.
“White is classic, simple yet versatile, and it looks great on Indian skin tones,” says Sheena Uppal, founder and creative director of the sustainable womenswear brand, Rengé. “No longer are we limiting ourselves to a plain white shirt or wearing white on specific occasions.”
Chemists have refined titanium dioxide to produce a dazzling superwhite (it’s in all the iPhones and possibly your sunglasses’ frames). Washing machines are within middle-class budgets. Poplin, cotton’s less-wrinkly cousin, is on-trend. Machines are able to mass-produce delicate lace, cutaway embroidery, opaque linens, and stretchy knits. And small fashion brands like Rengé, producing limited runs of each design, make personalising an outfit easier. Their Bailey jumpsuit, for instance, has intricate linear floral embroidery and a smocked waist – subtle details that stand out.
Plus, summers are getting hotter. Minimalism, clean-living and simplicity are buzzwords. “And white-on-white is so simple, you just pile it on,” says Sitlani. It’s easier to step out in head-to-toe white than ever before – and fit into the global leisure class while you’re at it. “A white jumpsuit is a great place to start,” says Uppal. “You only need to think about how to accessorise it.”
In America, white is already giving way to a micro-trend – winter whites, consisting of tailored, heavy creams and offwhite pieces that allow one to wear white even in snow season.
Indians are lucky. The days are hotter here and we can wear all-white practically all year round (if you can keep them clean). “Actors Anushka Sharma and Alia Bhatt have been wearing a lot of white, keeping the vibe cool, casual and comfortable – a great style inspiration,” Sitlani says. “Don’t overthink it, and don’t be scared of white.”