There is an epidemic spreading around the men’s wear world, specifically in the dress shirt department. Actually, it might be more accurate to describe the problem as an “imposter” situation rather than a virus. Every year, it appears that more and more nice cotton poplin dress shirts – the originals enjoyed by you, me, our fathers and every other discerning shirt-wearer – are being replaced by creepy renditions composed of some version of cotton that is technically (and legally) cotton, but looks and feels like something very different. This imposter of which I speak is known as “no-iron” or “easy-iron” cotton. And it sucks.
As age 40 loomed a few years ago, I decided to clean up my act, “up my game” and dress more like a grown-up. Part of that involved investing in good dress shirts, using the four criteria I employ for inclusion on my website and in my life. The shirts had to be 1.) handsome, 2.) well-made, 3.) affordable and 4.) workable.
Seeking nice, classic, cotton poplin shirts in solid white and sky blue with a semi-spread collar, French cuffs and a slim fit, I found three options that fit the bill. British shirtmaker Charles Tyrwhitt had a spectacular option that was often part of their now-famous “4 shirts for $199” offer. American dress shirt workhorse Brooks Brothers had an $80 option that fit that description, with a bundle offer of three shirts for $160 or $180 or something. And less known Paul Fredrick also had nicely-made, affordable shirts, but their French cuffs have rounded corners, which I don’t love as much as squared corners.
I went with the Charles Tyrwhitt shirt (4 for $199). Classic semi-spread collar, great slim fit, perfect French cuffs and a wonderful hand on the cotton. It was soft, it was breathable and it ironed well. (I do my own shirts.) And when the “sprezzatura” spirit moved me, the un-ironed cotton relaxed into a nice, appropriately wrinkled, unstructured shirt to wear by itself, with a sweater or with a casual jacket. My shirts were perfect, everything was wonderful and I was a happy customer. James Bond was a Turnbull & Asser man, my dad was a Brooks Brothers man, and I was becoming content as a Charles Tyrwitt man… until I went to get more.
When I looked for the same shirts on the Charles Tyrwhitt website, I couldn’t find them. The beautiful, regular cotton poplin shirts I had enjoyed so much had been replaced with “easy-iron” shirts. I searched and searched the site, thinking that I was maybe looking in the wrong place. Nope. The slim-fit shirts made in the regular cotton poplin weave were nowhere to be found.
Since Brooks Brothers was a bit steeper in price and Paul Fredrick had the rounded corners on the French cuffs, I was a bit stumped, especially since the 15.5″ x 35″ slim fit from Charles Tyrwhitt was an absolutely perfect fit. J.Crew wasn’t an option, since S, M, L and XL is a really inappropriate size model for dress shirts (especially at that price point). There are many other beautiful dress shirts available from different companies, but affordability is one of my four criteria. So I caved with Charles Tyrwhitt and got the same shirts, but in the “easy iron” cotton. Big mistake.
I realize one should always wash a dress shirt before wearing it, since brand new shirts often have a strange hand and need to shrink to the correct size. Out of the box, the new “easy iron” shirts from Tyrwhitt felt like fine nylon. My hope was that the fabric would soften and relax after a washing and ironing, but my hope was quickly ruined. They’re not only not soft like cotton should feel, but after wearing one for about an hour, it felt like my nipples were being sanded off. To complicate matters, it was a hot day. The cotton hardly breathes.
After a little research, I learned that “no-iron” and “easy-iron” cotton is treated with a formaldehyde resin, which permanently alters the cotton fabric, putting bonds in the material where they don’t exist on natural cotton fiber. This extra bonding yields a fabric that is, yes, technically cotton, but a super-strength Frankenstein cotton that doesn’t breathe, doesn’t bend or doesn’t wrinkle like natural cotton should. Another unfortunate effect of the “easy iron” cotton is the poly-blend look of it before ironing. The collar is permanently stiff and there is no option of wearing the shirt in a relaxed, un-ironed mode. It’s just weird.
As I searched for a handsome, well-made, affordable and workable Plan B online, I saw these stiff Stepford shirts everywhere. The virus even infected staunch, stalwart Brooks Brothers. I tweeted each company separately and their respective responses alluded to the overwhelming demand of the no-iron shirts. The demand for no-iron and easy-iron cotton is apparently so overwhelming that it’s not worth it to keep the regular cotton poplin shirts in production, ignoring the preferences of cotton-loving customers like me. But Brooks Brothers was kind enough to suggest their custom shirt option, which can be made with regular cotton poplin… for $350… per shirt. No, thanks.
I have no idea how long this epidemic of formaldehyde-soaked shirting will last, but I can say that Charles Tyrwhitt and Brooks Brothers really lost me, at least for now. While the popular shirtmakers feed the wants of iron-shy mama’s boys who don’t know good cotton from bad, I’m on the hunt for a handsome, well-made, affordable and workable custom option. I’ll let you know how it goes.