The Perfect White Shirt

Perfect (adjective): “exactly right for a particular purpose or situation”

For my 16th birthday (a decade ago), my mum took me down to London for the weekend. I grew up in Glasgow, so this counted as a glamorous expedition. We did the best teenage girl things – we went to see Mamma Mia and we went shopping on Oxford Street. I have a particularly vivid memories of picking out a birthday present from the Topshop flagship store. It was heaven – multiple levels, so many ranges, and a floor space large enough to swallow all our nearest branches. The novelty of Grown Up Shopping was still fairly new, I’d only recently rejected clothes that sized by age (though to this day, I still find labels reading ‘aged 13-14’ in my wardrobe). Topshop was the perfect ground to explore who I was going to be next. It was socially acceptable to shop there or at (the trashier) Jane Norman. In the same way that, for my 14 year old cousin, Pink / Victoria Secret and Pandora are the shopping bags to carry around now…

Anyway – we’re in Topshop, 2008. I have the overwhelming question of what to buy. Something on-trend that would improve the BHS and M&S basics in my wardrobe but still pass the mother gaze… In the end, I picked out a pair of Lee jeans and a white shirt. As the years pass, I am increasingly proud of this decision. The jeans are even better now than they were back then – they’ve softened, aged, and scuffed as I have. The white shirt is now slightly yellowed under the arm (don’t buy cheap deodorant)  but the shape has proved timeless. It’s oversized and billowy, but the pin-tucked bib front can play smart. Over the years, I’ve worn it every possible way – including loose over leggings and treggings (remember those?), tucked nonchalantly into those jeans, shorts, and every skirt I’ve ever owned (teaming it with my leopard print ‘going out’ skirt and a beige cardigan was a favourite look for the university library). Years from now, it will go beautifully with my nursing home slippers. It is perfect, except…

Perfect (adjective): “complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type or without fault”

It wouldn’t do for my university graduation. The dress code had exacting standards – a ‘classic’ white shirt and black trousers/skirt, or your national dress. Like most high street shirts, my Topshop favourite is very see-through (I always wear a layer under or over). My mum decided it was time for another life-stage shopping trip. This would be the first item in my working wardrobe. After trying on all the flimsy shirts in my favourite high-street shops, I was persuaded to step into those stiffer retailers that specialise in suits and work-wear. I came out of Austin Reed with a crisp, faintly pattered white shirt…and then promptly spilt coffee into the shopping bag. The washing machine saved it, but I couldn’t shake the guilt. I wore it on my graduation day, like something borrowed, and have never worn it since. It hangs at the back of my childhood wardrobe – patiently waiting for me to become the kind of woman who can own it. Poised, pristine, professional. Instead, I went to drama school.

Perfect (tense): “action that has happened in the past or before another time or event”

Theatre has defined the first half twenties – I have learnt to breathe, act and write; I have managed the every-day running of a venue and have saved actors stuck in toilets; I have created plays in a rehearsal room and I have performed. My graduation shirt would not have been comfortable for most of this.

Five years on from that graduation day, I am rerouting my career focus. There are other loves I want to explore – why stagnate when there are new challenges? I now want apply those skills in storytelling, adaptability and tenacity to my next career. One that involves style, interiors and editorial. For a few years, I have avoided admitting that what I want has changed, afraid of others’ rejection and my own ambition. But this next phase is also very exciting.

I’m currently back at my parents’ for a visit, and that white graduation shirt hangs in front of me. I’ve tried it on (it still fits). There’s no reason not to wear it with those Lee jeans, or to my next interview… I can make it work for me now. It’s exactly right for this new stage.

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