The Shirt From Hell

The appalling rise of the smelly, sweaty, scratchy no-iron shirt.

No-iron shirts are for suckers

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.

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.