“Why would I invest a lot of money in something I wear every day? It won’t last me more than a couple of months anyway!”
This is the argument I hear time and time again from men who wear formal attire at the office. All too often, when we are required to stick to a dress code, we don’t feel like we have any control over what we are wearing. A garment becomes a “uniform”, and we essentially stop caring how it looks – as long as it fulfils the formal requirements.
Going through a pile of shirts in a couple of months and then throwing them away (by the looks of the shirts I have seen on my colleagues recently, there is usually nothing left to donate) has its implications though. I have written about the perils of fast fashion previously, and I strongly believe we as professionals and entrepreneurs ought to be more responsible when buying “disposable” clothes. The truth is, with a little bit of discernment and a few care tricks, your professional wardrobe can look as sharp and new as the day you first tried it on.
How? Here we go:
1. Invest in Quality Materials
“What shoes are these? Black ones.”
As the anecdote implies, men often have very vague ideas about what actually goes into making the clothes they wear. And that’s OK. You don’t really need expert knowledge of thread counts in warp and weft (scary, I know!) to make better decisions.
What you need to know, though, is that the shirt you wear every day needs to be comfortable and durable, and the material that helps you achieve both these things is high-quality cotton. While fabrics blended with polyester might survive a couple more washes, they are considerably less breathable, and therefore less pleasant to wear. Elastic fibres (Lycra or similar) may sound like a good idea for comfort, but shirts containing them are very unforgiving if you slack off on the care, and tend to lose their shape quickly.
So, when in doubt, always go for 100% cotton fabrics.
2. Invest in Quality Weaves
“Do not go for a poplin shirt. Wait, what is poplin?”
First things first. Poplin is a fabric in a basic canvas weave, where threads of warp and weft alternate one-to-one. Too complicated? Think cheap hotel bed sheets – those are usually canvas. Better quality poplins don’t look like that, of course – they are light, fine, and crisp when pressed. But although durable, canvas fabrics wear off quickly, and lose their lustre, looking tired and overpressed after just a couple of washes. Like those bed sheets, you know.
What you want is a dense fabric made of long cotton fibres, with a light diagonal weave (twill) or a subtle texture. It will not deform when you wear it, will be light and supple on your skin, and will not pill or lose its shine when you care for it. These fabrics come at a price premium, of course, but once you see how much more wear you can get out of them, you will never go back!
3. Pick the Right Fit
“Oh, that. Yes, I’ve been working out lately!”
There is nothing more terrifying in this world than a man in an ill-fitting shirt. It does not really matter whether you are a bit chubby or a bit too athletic for your wardrobe – it’s time to do something about it. Little did you know, a shirt that is too baggy or too tight will also wear out much faster. The buttons pulling on the button holes, the rubbing of the folds and creases, the collar that is too loose getting squished under your tie every day – it all adds up to a look that is not neat, and not healthy for your shirt.
Not everybody has the luxury of getting their shirts bespoke tailored, but that’s oftentimes not even necessary. Just go for a reasonable fit that suits your figure: most importantly, the seam of your sleeve insert should sit at the outer edge of your collarbone, and you should be able to fit one finger (not three!) inside a buttoned-up collar. Everything else should allow you enough freedom of movement, even after a couple of pints, and should stay tucked in your trousers when you get into a car. It will look better, feel better, and last longer!
4. A Collar that’s Right for You
“If a shirt was a person of royal stature, the collar would be their crown. - my Mom”
The collar is by far the most important part of a shirt. It determines how it fits you, how tidy it looks, and how long it lasts. We’ve already talked about collar fitting, so let’s talk about collar science.
A dress shirt collar is made of two or three layers of fabric stitched together, and one or more layers of a material called interlining. The interlining can be woven like a canvas, or non-woven like a fine fleece. It can be soft or stiff. It can be absent (which by definition makes a shirt NOT a dress shirt). And, of course, it can be fused improperly.
The best way to check for the quality of the interlining is to look at a shirt collar against a bright light. If there are bits missing, or the stitching does not run all the way through the interlining, it’s your cue to run away. Another good indicator is the presence of bubbles or creases. The interlining is usually fused into the other fabric in a huge hydraulic press, with very precise temperature, time and pressure settings. If these settings are off, the interlining and the fabric will come apart, either immediately, or after contact with water. If you’ve ever owned a questionable quality shirt, you will remember those nasty little air bubbles that start appearing on the collar, causing your shirt to be decommissioned way before its time.
Finally, pick a collar that is sturdy, but not too stiff (so it doesn’t rub your neck), and has pockets for removable collar stays. Avoid the ones with the collar stays fused inside, as they can get deformed in the washing and are then impossible to replace. Otherwise, a well-fused collar will survive the washing machine or pressing with no issues for cycles and cycles to come.
5. A Little Bit of Love
“I just washed it in… ermmm… water. Why is it so fluffy?”
Let’s face it. Each one of us is guilty of neglecting the care label from time to time, and, through historical circumstance, men in particular tend to underappreciate the value of doing laundry properly. And what I’m about to say is not going to make you any happier. You see, “laundry day” is the archenemy of your shirt.
In an ideal world, you would stick your shirt in the washer the moment you take it off (and wash it, of course, not let it sit there till Sunday). This allows the sweat and dust, and the occasional ketchup stain to be washed away quickly, before it gets a chance to seep into the fabric. No more rubbing or brushing collars, equals less stress on the fabric, equals the shirt that lasts longer.
Since we do not live in an ideal world, though, if you want to get the maximum out of the beautiful shirt you invested in, wash it as soon as possible. If you do it quickly, cold water and a short cycle is more than enough. And remember that the other enemies of the shirt include bleach and the tumble dryer. It probably won’t ruin the fabric or the collar interlining (if it is properly fused), but it can make the polyester stitching shrink, resulting in very unpretty crinkling along the seams.
If you like to get your shirts pressed, find a shop that does it properly, without using any harsh chemicals, and aim for taking the shirts to them in smaller batches.