The obsession started young. I remember the steam from the iron snorting like a dragon each time my mother would lift it from the freshly laundered linen. While the rest of the family sat entranced by 80s sitcoms, she stood tirelessly pressing my father's shirts with military precision. He was lucky to have worked before casual attire became the norm and was in constant need of an army of dress shirts at his disposal. His stylistic preference favored maximum starch, which produced shirts so stiff they stood at attention under their own control. As the nights drew closer to bedtime, the readied soldiers would hang from the door jam awaiting their call to duty and the dragon would return to its resting state.
Children are impressionable and I was no different. The hours I spent seeing my mom produce masterfully curated garments and idolizing my father's crisp appearance created a monster at quite a young age. As the story goes, around 5 years of age, my mother delivered a pair of pants to my room before I was to head off to another day in the salt mines of Catholic kindergarten. She returned back to her room only to be followed by her incensed offspring; the scathing little stomps indicating displeasure. Little did I know that the foundations of a New Yorker were forming in me already as I threw the pants to the floor at her feet and demanded that they be re-pressed… correctly. In my advanced pediatric mind, I felt her work subpar, inadequate and quite frankly unprofessional. She clearly did not understand the consequences of walking into class dressed so slovenly. How could I command respect overseeing the construction of a block fort? Who would want to sit at my kidney bean shaped table and discuss school politics and the latest Ninja Turtles episode?? What good would learning to tie my shoe be if the crease in my goddamn pants was incorrect??? It would affect the entire line of my trouser, not to mention meddling with the break! Although I don't remember much else, my guess is that her initial instinct to slap me was subdued only by the stupefaction that a wee creature could insist upon such strict protocol on his appearance.
To this day I have a love affair with laundry. It's been many years since my mother has had to iron my clothes, but every once in a while she'll jump at the chance to press a shirt while I'm home. It's an opportunity to iron in her personal touch to my love of sartorial flair and atone for her once shoddy performance. She will present her finished work for inspection like a proud peacock, and I, having grown (slightly) less demanding, now appreciate all her efforts. Those shirts feel different because they lack the normal faceless service. Instead they shine with the most paramount of care - a mother's loving touch.
Living in New York I have had to forgo the pleasures of laundering my own clothes in favor of drop-off service. From a monetary and time perspective it makes more sense to outsource the work and stimulate local business. But after 5 years it still saddens me to have to relinquish control over the maintenance of my most prized possessions. Just like my beloved Turkish tailor, my dry cleaner has become a trusted ally in the preservation of my closet and image. Although the drop off saddens me, I find picking up my freshly cleaned shirts to be one of life's little pleasures. For then my arsenal is replenished and stands ready to fight the casual world again.
Unlike my father, I adamantly request no starch on my shirts. I find that the chemicals and forced rigidity deteriorate the fabric quicker, in addition to making for an unpleasant wear. I desire the natural cotton against my skin and not the seared varnish of starch. But to each his own in the details of dress. Once the troops have returned to home base I immediately redress them with the standard issue barracks uniform. The cheap wire hangers are removed and the pressed shoulders are draped over sturdy wooden frames.
Recently though I have decided to spice things up and opt for pressed, folded shirts (Yes, I know, things get wild here in NYC). In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper arrives at the office one morning after a night of adulterous and debauched acts. While conversing with his superior, he reaches down into his desk drawer, which happens to be stocked with clean, folded white dress shirts. As he changes, the sins of his prior evening are wiped clean by the fresh linen and he is ready to demoralize another day. Similarly, at the start of the film, George Falconer in A Single Man retrieves a folded white shirt from the stacks in his bedroom's dresser as he delivers his internal narrative - "It takes time in the morning for me to become George. Time to adjust to what is to be expected and how he is to behave." His regimented drawer of folded shirts is part of the uniform that he adheres to each day to "become" himself.
|Draper's desk drawer|
|Falconer's dresser drawer|
There is something about the folded dress shirt that I find exciting. I feel that it strips away the commodity of the laundering process and returns your garment with a personal touch. The precision with which it's folded highlights the care that someone placed in looking after your possessions. As we all know, presentation accounts for much of a product's value. A laundered folded shirt takes us back to when it was new and the overwhelming anticipation of the first wear.
From a practicality standpoint, folded shirts are a must for travel. I myself have a wedding to attend next week and Easter with the family the following weekend. I try to think ahead and plan my outfits accordingly so that I may be adequately prepared for the packing process. I'll separate my shirts out for travel and regular wear when trips are imminent. Folded shirts stack nicely into a suitcase, or fit easily in an overnight duffle while maintaining their integrity and form. But more regularly I have been getting one or two folded each drop-off just for fun. A little change to the banality that the weeks can bring. I regularly say that what gets me out of bed each morning is the walk to my closet - the chance to define myself and shape my image before entering the world. But one or two days of the week, it's the drawer that draws me from the covers. It's knowing that there awaits a little gift for me to open.