White-collared dresses: Tracing their history from Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to Renaissance Europe

White-collared dresses: Tracing their history from Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to Renaissance Europe

Just a little fashion nerdery

Text: Ryan Sng

Sombre attire with white (or cream)-framed necklines is an ages-old fashion trope. Most recently spotted on the witches of Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the white collar's spellbinding effect appears as potent as ever. But how did such an unassuming item become inextricably linked with religion, repressed sexuality and the occult? We dip our toes into the long history behind this charged style, and walk you through the best versions fall 2018 has to offer.

Pale collars, ruffs and cuffs were especially popular across Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, featuring prominently in Spanish men's court dress, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals' depictions of society during the Dutch Golden Age, and the wardrobes of English Puritans. Beyond the way they highlighted a subject's visage in portraits and were easy to detach and launder, these accessories were strongly connected - albeit not exclusively - with nobility and clergy, the two social classes considered closest to God.

Those figures just happened to be the central players in the ecclesiastical turmoil unfolding across the region. With several Christian factions in often violent conflict and the soul of man seemingly at stake, it was a time of existential fear, performative austerity, superstition and deliciously dark fashion. (We fashion folk only care about the clothes. Sorry, not sorry).

White-collared outfits have mostly retained their links to divinity and mysticism since. Whether it's archetypal Catholic priest garb, sinister headmistresses in children's fantasy films, or costumes in historically-faithful stagings of The Crucible, a white collar is costume-design shorthand for all things dark, mysterious, and possibly kinky.

Such theatrical associations have left most women apprehensive of adopting the white collar, but over the years a few key style icons have carried them off with aplomb. Ranging from a grunge queen to a French cinema goddess and the high priestess of 20th century fashion, these women demonstrate the universality and timelessness of the LWC.

Black-and-white combos were a staple of Coco Chanel's design vocabulary. As with many of her aesthetic signatures, it most likely originated in her convent upbringing and tightly-held superstitious beliefs. Some variant on the theme has appeared in every single Chanel collection, well into the Lagerfeld era.

In 1967 Catherine Deneuve donned an Yves Saint Laurent number to play a sexually anorexic housewife/moonlighting prostitute in Belle de Jour. Luis Bunuel's film was released amidst a sexual revolution that was sweeping French culture, and eroding the hitherto unquestioned moral authority of the Catholic Church.

A couple of decades on, the white-collared dress found itself on frequent rotation in the closet of Hole frontwoman Courtney Love, whose charged lyrics about female experience and sexuality occasionally referenced God and witchcraft. The singer's favourite example was even photographed behind a glass case, as the cover art of Hole's compilation album My Body the Hand Grenade.

Still not 100% convinced? Then why not take a page from history, and test-drive the white-collared look with a detachable? We advise pairing it with a velvety frock in black, midnight blue or deep merlot, and some block-heeled, square toe shoes.

Check back soon for another Fashion Nerdery column from Ryan Sng, Buro. Singapore’s fashion writer. Read previous Fashion Nerdery entries here.

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