Is it just me? Fearing I had grown fussy in my old age, I called Marshal Cohen, the apparel-retailing guru at the NPD Group market-research firm, for a reality check. Cohen, who says he does his own laundry, refuses to buy no-iron shirts, complaining that they don’t even come out of the wash truly wrinkle-free. I told him my new Nordstrom button-down sure did, but that it was so stiff it practically stood up by itself. “Well," he said, "a balsa-wood shirt would come out pretty smooth too."
If these shirts are so terrible, why are they so popular? Cohen likes to quote Bill Clinton on this point: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The technology to make cotton wrinkle-free has been around for a while, but since the 1990s had been used mainly on cotton pants because it left fabric a little stiff, which is presumably always considered a virtue below the belt. (You can tell which pants these are, since their wrinkle-resistance is usually trumpeted on the tag.) The technology has been applied to shirts, too, over the years, with mixed success, but over time the process supposedly was improved—and the recent recession, Cohen said, opened the floodgates.
Consumers needed to save money. Men who send old-fashioned cotton shirts out each week can easily spend $400 a year on professional laundering, or several times the price of each shirt over its lifetime without even counting the inconvenience or gasoline. So when times are bad, no-iron looks good.
Shirt makers and retailers, meanwhile, saw a way to drive sales by embracing a feature that was suddenly timely. Stores are also carrying no-iron sheets and other products, but few people schlep their sheets to the laundry. It’s the shirts that offer big savings. And while some critics complain that the no-iron process shortens the life of a garment, so does professional laundering. Yet who would want such shirts to last? Does anyone really like having collars and cuffs that feel like cheap vinyl?
Although these hideous garments will suffocate your soul, I doubt they pose any great threat to human health. Still, the government's National Toxicology Program has listed formaldehyde as a carcinogen, and in the New York Times, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society didn't sound reassuring: “It’s the smell in new houses, and it’s in cosmetics like nail polish,” he said. “All a reasonable person can do is manage their exposure and decrease it to as little as possible. It’s everywhere.”
Not in my shirts it's not. Now that I know what's what, I'll never buy another of these things—even though it's become so tough to find traditional, untreated shirts, especially in the orangutan sleeve length I require, that I've taken to trolling eBay. As to the no-iron shirt I put on to write this, I know where I'll wear it next, if not when: at my own funeral. With all that formaldehyde, it's just the thing to be buried in.