The Shirt From Hell
The appalling rise of the smelly, sweaty, scratchy no-iron shirt.
Photograph by George Doyle.
I’d like to give you the shirt off my back.
But you'd be crazy to accept it. That's because the shirt in question is one of the no-iron models that are ubiquitous in middle-class department stores these days, and wearing it makes me want to jump out of my skin.
The no-iron shirt may be the greatest fashion crime of our age. A grotesque invention, it is the satanic love-child of chemistry and retailing, combining all the worst qualities of plywood, vinyl, and embalming fluid in a garment that would be more at home in the Spanish Inquisition than the cubicles of the modern workplace.
Men no doubt have a great deal to answer for. Yet it's hard to believe our failings are so egregious—and our sense of guilt so pervasive—that we'd willingly don these newfangled hair shirts every day in penance. But that’s just what more and more of us seem to be doing, as I recently found out the hard way.
Thanks to a protracted bout of self-employment, I went more than 15 years without buying a new dress shirt. In sartorial terms, I was a regular Rip Van Winkle. But recently I took a job with a strict dress code—no pajamas—and so went shopping for some stuff to wear. I was after the reassuring look and feel of fine cotton shirts; Not only are they a pleasure to wear, but I know from experience that, professionally laundered, these are the key to disguising nearly anybody as a presentable employee.
And that’s when I encountered the no-iron dress shirt. Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, this strange new beast had conquered men's upper bodies. Last year nearly a quarter of men's cotton woven shirts were no-iron/wrinkle-resistant, and my sense is that the proportion is much higher for dress shirts, especially in the kind of middle-income stores—like Kohl's—that Dwight Schrute would shop at. Even Brooks Brothers has lots of them. The Costco I visited had nothing but.
And make no mistake, this really is a guy thing; men's clothing last year was 11 times likelier than women's to be marketed as no-iron or wrinkle-resistant, based on figures from Cotton Incorporated, the trade group.
Not many men like to iron, evidently. But in turning their hairy backs on this homely task—and refusing to take their shirts to a pro—guys have made a pact with the devil, because no-iron shirts lack much of what makes cotton cotton. These aren't just shirts; they're vehicles of self-mortification, sackcloth and ashes adorned with stripes and spread collars.
They get that way as the result of a formaldehyde resin bath, which makes the cellulose strands bond to one another at the molecular level while choking the life out of the fabric. Think of it as a kind of chemical castration—of the cotton fibers, if not the wearer. Those chemicals probably account for the odor emanating from some of these shirts when they're new. A really nice one I got at my favorite store, Nordstrom, smells like the New Jersey Turnpike around Exit 13, even after three washings.
The stench goes away after a while, but other miseries persist. No-iron shirts are scratchy and stiff rather than soft. They're also stifling, as if they don’t fully breathe. Although the no-iron process supposedly doesn't affect the "hand," or feel, of the cloth, I don't buy it. As far as I can tell, the formaldehyde treatment turns a great natural fabric into something more like a barbecue-cover.
Daniel Akst is a writer in New York's Hudson Valley. He is the author of The Webster Chronicle, a novel.