By Robin Postell
The way my body feels inside of a man’s white shirt is beyond the mere idea of sensuality, or style. There is something unspeakably suggestive about the way it envelops a woman’s body, especially if it hasn’t been washed and still carries the scent of the man to whom it belongs.
But even if you’re the kind of collector who scrutinizes the thrift stores men’s racks for them as I do, the thrill remains. One day a few years ago, and I remember it as clearly and vividly as I remember my first kiss, I found three perfectly, heavily-starched white button-down freshly dry-cleaned Brooks Brothers shirts. I gasped, held onto them tightly, and looked around in 360-degree totality to make sure I wasn’t going to be forced to fight for them. The moment crystallized into a serendipitous monument of the mind when it acknowledges the Great Work is indeed at work within you.
Added to the magic was that every day at that Goodwill location they announce the color of the day, which discounts the corresponding tagged item. “Blue,” it read, and when I looked down, there they were – three blue plastic tags on each shirt! Regularly $2.99, I got them for 99 cents each!
This kind of good fortune isn’t called a lucky day, that’s far too plebian. No, this is more profound, this is fate; this is the gods of sexuality and fashion consummating your soul more fully into being!
By God, it was a Blue day and my Brooks Brothers shirts, lined up side-by-side, the plastic from the cleaner’s clearly just pulled off of them from some donor, were going home with me and I would have them forever. Mine!
I knew exactly how much they retailed for, plus they were immaculate.
I imagined immediately that to whomever the shirts had belonged were possibly recently expired, memorialized somewhere not too far from where I stood. Perhaps one of these shirts, the fourth missing one, had been buried with the debonair hero of maleness, their mortal days having wound down to a final breath.
But these three absolutely perfect white shirts, utterly identical, defined this no-longer-mere-mortal man as someone who had prided himself worthy of a Brooks Brothers tailored shirt. He must have been a boss, the CEO of an old, esteemed company, probably a law firm – but which? Where?
Some things one will never know.
These thoughts tumbled through my consciousness like lottery balls ready to be plucked and called as I checked the size – not that it would have mattered.
They could have been any size and I still would have whisked them into my buggy. But to drive home the point that serendipitous moments are still the synchronous markers that we are in accord with the universe, they were all sized 16 ½ -34. Too big to be tailored for my feminine frame, much too long – hitting my thighs about mid-way – and the sleeves swallowing my outstretched fingers completely, all of this was irrelevant.
The point was, the shirt wasn’t ever supposed to actually fit.
This find was actually a new love affair; I had been swept completely off my feet by this invisible man of substance…this mysterious, tall, phantom: this man in full.
The classic tag, sewn into the inside collar, reading “Brooks Brothers” in red lettering on top and “Est. 1818 below. In the center, the size “16 ½ – 34.” Beneath, also in the same red lettering stitch, “THE ORIGINAL POLO SHIRT. TRADITIONAL FIT. NON-IRON. ALL COTTON. MADE IN MALAYSIA.”
Saying I grew up in poverty would be laughable, but we were by no means considered cornbread aristocracy. My daddy was from the country, my mama was from town (which was about four miles difference between the town of Adel and the outlying countryside of Sparks), which gave her a bit more of a pedigree.
They married and we had everything we needed, with plenty of food, clothing, cars, and a nice big brick house in the country spread on six acres out on my grandpapa’s thousand acre farm. We had a pool and even our own darkroom down in my daddy’s home office, the walls lined with five iron Royal manual typewriters and Nikons strewn across the floor stacked high with newspapers, books and my drawings.
But there was nothing in our allowances for shirts as fine as those tailored by Brooks Brothers. My father wore whatever shirts were sold at B.C. Moore’s in Adel, Georgia, or maybe at the now defunct Gayfer’s men’s department at the Albany Mall. He wore what his mama or my mama, who he called affectionately “Bunki,” bought him.
And when you get right down to it, a men’s white shirt is still a men’s white shirt, as long as it’s clean and starched. You can put a homeless drunk in one, after a good shower, and he could pass for a bank president in the right kind of light. At least from the waist up.
The fact that my mother had worn her father’s white shirts as a girl had yet to influence me, at least consciously; but certainly I’d seen photos of her wearing them, tied smartly above the waistband of the shortest shorts allowed in the 1950s, the sleeves fastidiously folded once, twice, thrice, so that they exposed her milky forearms all the way to her elbow.
Even today, with my mother passed and reduced to ashes now for 12 years, men who knew her will see me and look off into that neverland space where time suspends in pure ether-rich memory, and say, “Ah, yes, now…Judi…let me tell you something..don’t get me wrong, you’re a beautiful girl, Robin, but your mama….” And they’ll pause here, to drift a bit further into that encapsulated moment of eternity, maybe shake their head side-to-side slowly with a clenched jaw and misty gaze, adding, “She was the pertiest girl I have ever seen, with her daddy’s white shirt and those shorts, aw my lord, now, she was something else, Judi was. Mm, mm, she was fine.”
I’ve lost count of how many men have reflected on that vision of my mother, long before she was a mother, enchanting males of all ages and creating an immortal memory into which they could escape and be swept up into, if only for a few seconds.
Honestly, I don’t even think I discovered Brooks Brothers until I moved to Athens for college and met my supermodel hot friend Meredith, who, like me, wore them the way boys our age wore baseball caps. Always a go-to item when we were just hanging out, wearing our father’s white shirts was a common habit.
Nearly six-feet-tall, with flaming orange and red fire for hair, big pouty shiny kiss-me-now lips, Lolita come-hither eyes and heavy-cream-colored skin spread all over her aristocratic scaffolding of perfectly designed and symmetrically-gifted bones, muscles and sinew with a sterling silver butter knife, and of course all those blue-blooded-filled veins that I figured must have been what kept her alive in that cold, aloof manner of old-monied beauties I felt as different from as coal does from rose petals.
White shirts were such a staple that one roommate we adopted, Ripley, a top-percentile law student, was targeted immediately for perhaps the single most coveted Brooks Brothers shirt I’d ever needed, wanted – had to have. It haunted me. He wore it almost daily, and it had so many holes in it that his elbows were completely exposed. He’d tuck the shirt into his worn jeans, belted neatly with a brown leather belt, his pale Buckhead-baby skin and cherub-curly gold hair a halo
All I cared about was that shirt.
Our styles began to evolve, individually and together. Meredith liked what I could wear, being 5’6” with a big butt and braless boyish chest – slight Bs to her double Ds that every male became mentally challenged by the moment they laid eyes on them…her.
I could wear my white men’s shirts unbuttoned almost to my navel with a pair of silk pajama bottoms (from a pair of Victoria’s Secret paisley silk men’s pjs that I begged and whined and pleaded with Meredith to buy me because she always had more money than I did) and a big gaudy pendant hanging between my little boobs, which I felt very much possessed in those moments with the machismo of a 70s-era disco daddy.
And I loathed that I adored her long, slinky 20-foot-long gams which meant she could wear men’s 31/32 jeans, J.Crew khakis, Gap chinos, with her men’s white shirt (or gingham, striped, button-down or not, cotton or linen, but never polyester, unless, of course, it was authentico thrift store 100% purebred Italian polyester nylon circa Tony in Saturday Night Fever, then by god, you rocked that poly like a rock stahhhhh)…….
She loathed the fact that she could not wear heels, unless she wanted to feel like an Amazon, or a drag queen. I could wear heels, and in fact, needed to, in order to lengthen my frame and not look too portly in an era when girl’s with big asses were called fat, not thick – which in today’s spectrum means you’re like Beyonce. If we had Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, Cardi B, or the Kardashians back then, I would have been the AAA rated five-star bitch. Let me tell the mes of today, be damn glad you didn’t live in the time of little white girl asses being the standard of beauty. If I could tell my past self anything it would be to exercise patience, fat asses are going to take over the world and you will be the winner!
And for all the brilliant fashion the two of us lusted after, and still do, not a day goes by that either of us does not return to the old standby, the sexy-schmexy embrace of the men’s white shirt, all hugged up by your daddy, but more likely your hottest fantasy guy-in-the-sky who you’re always thinking about, whose name you might not even know, or whose face you can’t even make out, but who you know would be wearing the very shirt you’re nakedness is surrendered to, secure within, and fully relaxed within, worn alone, or with panties, or with jeans or silk paisley drawstring pajama bottoms…
The androgynous element of it, too, cannot be denied, since it embodies the patriarchal Western culture into which all us silly American girls grow up being indoctrinated as the most revered, successful and powerful male archetype. The knight in shining armor, who wears a white shirt, of course, is what we have been reared to believe in as the ultimate hero, the Winner, the leader, the President of the United States of MF America!
The penultimate patriarchal archetypal mythology made legendary in every movie, every book, in every family photo, or Sunday Best-attired man has been co-opted for generations, by Collete, by Marlene Dietrich, by Marilyn Monroe, by my mother, and me, and of course, by god, by Meredith, who I guarantee, as I’m writing this, she is wearing her father’s hand-me-down white shirt, holding a Marlboro, and staring into the distance – the eternal green light to a thousand Gatsbys out there wishing they could have married her.
Today we can co-opt menswear all we want, just for kicks; statements are made in more salient ways. We’ve blasted beyond to bend the gender idea into entire ideologies independent of wardrobe, but let’s never, no not ever, forget that the men’s white shirt is what got this party started and still does and will until the end of time as we know it.
Can we please, please, just take a moment of silence to say thanks to whoever the genius was who sat down and designed this classic, exquisitely remarkable example of simple perfection of the male energy and form?
Please, you know who you are, I didn’t even bother to Google you because I think you’re that special and sacred…just please, take a bow because I am wearing my white Brooks Brothers shirt at this very moment, which happens to have about 22 flecks of silver glitter that Meredith recently sent me to encourage and inspire, to implore me (as she is always wont to do) to make more glitter stars to hang from my ceiling, like back in “the day.”
You all know about “the day,” because everybody has a “back then,” and every single one of us, male, female, and everything in between, looks fantastic in them.
Your white-shirt-wearing, ever-loving, glitter-speckled girl-o-girls,
Robin MF Postell