Thursday, July 24, 2008

The New Permanent Press

Remember the 60/40 cotton and polyester dress shirts? "Drip-dry," "permanent press"? The idea was to relieve the Harriet the Harried Housewife from the chore of ironing, thus freeing her to drink beer and throw rocks at bottles at the junk yard.

And the harried bachelor could chuck his shirts in the bathtub, pour some soap on them, and gently agitate with his feet. (Alternate method - a broom or mop handle. If said bachelor owned such things.)

Life in those days must have been one big clothesline.

I still have a few of those shirts from Brooks or somebody, and the problem with them is that they never felt quite right.

And they were hot.

Fast-forward to today, with manufacturers merrily treating their fabrics with a sort of Teflon material and hardly a standard, must-iron shirt to be found anywhere.

If you buy a dress shirt at a department store chances are it will be treated.

Even Brooks Brothers, never known for their innovation, has gone for the 100 percent cotton, non-iron in a big way.

These non-irons are different than the old wash and wears, at least in theory. Being all-cotton, they should breathe and feel good against the skin.

Well, some do and some don't. I have quite a few, and here's how they rank:

Lands End: The non-iron broadcloth and pinpoint solids are my go-to suit shirts. I can't tell the difference between them and a standard shirt in terms of comfort. After repeated washings the Teflon starts to wear off a bit, and they look more like a regular shirt that's been ironed recently than a "Look Ma, No Wrinkles!" Official Non-Iron Shirt.

I have four LE pinpoint non-irons with buttondown collars that have been my workhorse shirts this summer. I got them specifically for the purpose. I have been leery of the non-iron with the buttondown collar in the past; the style's inherent casualness seems at odds with the eerily perfect-looking collar.

But these are fine and don't look like I got my head stuck in a bucket of starch or anything.

LL Bean: All their oxford cloth buttondowns in exact neck and sleeve sizes come with the Treatment these days, which strikes me as silly. Oxford cloth is one fabric that will take and hold even the most inept and perfunctory attempt at ironing.

But they are certainly sturdy. Great for fall, under tweeds or as stand-alone sports shirts.

Brooks Brothers: There are the regular line shirts, which have gotten better in terms of hand and breathability. On sale these represent a good value, although I still prefer the standard finish for the buttondown.

And there are the "346" line shirts, found in the outlets, and these are a decidedly mixed bag. They have averaged sleeve sizes, and the averages are pretty skewed, because the sleeve lengths are all over the place. And the non-iron fabrics range from the perfectly fine to the dreadful and plasticky. Really give these a good once-over before you buy - try them on, feel the fabric, button it all the way up and ask yourself, do I want this stuff under my chin all day?

It's a shame, because some of the 346 patterns are pretty snazzy.

The Field:

Nordstrom SmartCare: I have one of these, a white buttondown. They abound on eBay for about half the store price. It feels fine and performs exactly as advertised.

Joseph A. Bank: I have an older Travelers line shirt, which is plasticky and will shortly go in the donation bag; and a brand new one, from the StaysCool line.

This last is rather remarkable. A white buttondown, it is rather sheer. If you are hairy this might not be your best bet.

The fabric feels elegant. Or flimsy. I can't decide.

I wore it yesterday, with a Brooks poplin sack in their CoolMax configuration. (And I make fun of Lycra bicycle shorts.) And yes, the shirt Stayed Cool.

At $60 a pop it's a little dear; JAB runs continuous promotions, however, and the shirts will certainly be available at a heavy discount at some point.

[Edit, August 1] Charles Tyrwhitt: The English Jos. A Bank, home of the Eternal Promotion. Their prices just went up. Great patterns, but the overall quality of the shirts is uneven. I have four of their non-irons and as far as the fabric goes I find them indistinguishable from a must-iron.


trip said...


I must agree with your ranking of LE over BB non-iron. A while back, if you recall, you sold me some point collar non-iron shirts that you had. Most were BB but one was LE. In spite of now owning about 5 BB non-iron point collar shirts (thanks to an acquisition from the user Georgia), the LE one is usually my go-to when I am wearing a point collar.

P.S.- Glad you decided not to throw in the towel on the blog.

Patrick said...

Trip -

I picked up some additional BB outlet non-iron point collars. They were on super-duper sale, and they had a pink one. Drawback is the averaged sleeves, but I tried them on before buying, in defiance of Established Manly Tradition (EMT).

These have gotten much better in terms of feel.