Properly Care for Your Dress Clothes

You have to properly care for your suits, ties, and dress shirts if you want them to last. And really, what’s the point in getting all those nice clothes if they won’t last? Do you still hang your ties from a hook or hanger? Are you getting your shirts starched? Do you take your suits to the dry cleaner regularly? You could be severely reducing the lifespan of your dress clothes.

Dress Shirts

If you’re still dry cleaning your shirts, you are constantly assaulting them with numerous chemicals that can deteriorate the fabric. Eventually, this causes the shirt to wear out and get that “old” look to it. It could be a little pilling, a slightly faded collar, or any other number of issues. The bottom line is: don’t dry clean.

The ideal method for cleaning a dress shirt is hand washing. For tough stains, you could even try the Oxi Clean and vinegar method. But what are we, made of time? Those hours won’t bill themselves. That means hand washing is probably out of the question for most of us. One alternative is to put all your dress shirts on a gentle cycle in the wash and hang them dry. This will get them clean and prevent shrinking. But then you will have to iron (or steam, see below) each shirt. That can be a pain.

For me, the best of both worlds is taking the shirt to the dry cleaner, but asking that they launder it instead of dry cleaning it. If you’re willing to cough up the money you can also ask them to hand press the shirts instead of using the machine. As a law clerk I try to pinch pennies where I can, so I’ve never done this. But I do get them laundered.

Another key to elongating the life of your dress shirts is avoiding starch. Although starch may give your shirt a crisp look, the chemicals will deteriorate the fabric of your dress shirt and lead to its early demise.

Ties

You aren’t storing the ties while they’re still tied in knots, right? Because that is horrible for them. It will drastically reduce the life of your necktie. The Tie Guide suggests that to untie the tie, you should reverse the tying procedure. That’s probably a good suggestion, although I’m definitely guilty of just pulling the narrow end through the knot.

Most importantly, stop hanging your dress ties. Some websites only direct this advice to knit ties, but I think it applies to all materials. When you hang your tie, the wider end will weigh more than the narrow end. While it’s on a hanger, this weight imbalance can cause the tie to stretch over time. I recently noticed this issue with some of my older ties, and immediately started rolling all of them. As an added bonus, the rolled ties are much easier to browse in the morning. That cuts down quite a bit of time when getting ready.

Suits

The general consensus is that you should only dry clean your suits a few times a year. I try to get mine cleaned about once a season. The chemicals that a dry cleaner uses are harmful to the suit. Over time the suit will wear out and start to get a shiny appearance to it. So it’s best to dry clean the clothes as infrequently as possible. In the interim, hand wash any spots that appear. To hand wash, simply use a mild detergent and warm water.

To get rid of wrinkles between cleanings, I strongly recommend purchasing a steamer. These things are amazing. The steamer I have heats up in about fifteen seconds, and I can usually steam an entire suit before it has to heat up again. This lets me give my suits that freshly pressed look without taking them to the dry cleaners.

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  • Jonathan Moody

    Great article. So many people destroy their clothing while thinking that they’re properly caring for it. The dry cleaner is pure evil when it comes to caring for your clothing.

    My one addition would be to warn about using the steamer on a suit/sportcoat. On a lower quality suit (fused construction), there is glue that can easily by separated by the steam. This will cause dimples and wrinkles to form on the suit, and you will not be able to remove them.

    So be careful using a steamer on a fused suit. And if you aren’t sure whether your suit is fused or not, then it is likely fused (yes, even if you spent money on a “quality” suit).

    But overall, this is great advice that I’ve learned after consistently destroying my clothing and wondering why it doesn’t last

  • Well, I disagree with a lot of this. I have shirts that are five years old (a few even older), that go to the dry cleaner frequently, get medium starch, and look great. When an older shirt shows wear and tear on the collar, I don’t know how you could tell it’s from the dry cleaning instead of just wear and tear. The collar on a shirt gets abused – it accumulates sweat and dirt and rubs against your neck all day long if you wear a tie. And if a cotton shirt doesn’t get starched, by 11:00 a.m. it’s going to look like you slept in it. Pressing does sometimes break buttons, but at $7.50 per hand press, I don’t care to repurchase the shirt every 5 wearings, so I take my chances with the machine press.

    This tie thing is a new one on me. I have had ties hanging in my closet for years, at least a decade, and they do not get longer by hanging there (really, I had to check my calendar when I read this to make sure it’s not April 1). When the tie is hanging, if it’s not balanced, won’t it fall off the hanger? I could see that a tie could stretch out by repeatedly being tied and knotted, but not by hanging. And how would one know that it’s the hanging and not the tying that is allegedly stretching the ties? Or by your date/partner/spouse constantly reeling you in for a big smooch? (tip: let them do it even if they’re stretching the tie. It’s just a tie. Whether you let them do other things with the tie is a personal choice. But those things may stretch the tie as well). I’m not buying it (although it is a clever idea for a practical joke, if you can find ties in the same pattern but different lengths).

    One tip I would offer, that I suspect you’ll agree with, is that when your suit pants need to be dry cleaned, you still need to dry clean the entire suit. Someone could probably get away with cleaning just the pants once or twice, but if it’s done repeatedly the pants may fade and end up a slightly different shade than the jacket. That’s why I like sports coats.

  • Mock and ridicule me for saying this, but I don’t think that “wrinkle free” 55/45 cotton/poly dress shirts from Kohl’s (or similar stores) really look bad at all. I also think they are not as hot as all-cotton shirts, which I wore when I first started appearing in court. Wash them on delicate, separate from other clothes, and take them out of the dryer right away and hang them on wooden hangars. They really won’t have wrinkles, and with no starch, dry cleaning, or ironing, they last a long time. (Also, ironing shirts is the most tedious job in the world.) If you are fashion-conscious, I suppose you won’t wear these shirts, but if you view the “lawyer costume” as merely a required uniform, as I do, this is a good alternative.

    • I did this for a while. But in the end, I found that the blends are noticeably cheaper-looking after a few washings, and it’s harder to get out collar stains. Plus, they just aren’t as comfortable as cotton.

      So now that my office is close to a cleaners, I bought a bunch of decent cotton dress shirts, and get them laundered at the cleaners. It’s a bit more hassle, but I just keep around a couple of blended shirts for “emergency” dress-up days.

      This is from a guy who wears t-shirts and jeans to the office most days, though, and whose idea of dressing up for a client meeting is pulling on a blazer over his t-shirt. I’m probably not the best source of fashion tips. I aim for comfort.

      • This is interesting. I actually stopped buying 100% cotton shirts because my experience has been they are the worst with stains, including the dreaded neck of the shirt. I’ve had better luck with the blends. Also, I used to only buy the white dress shirts – but they show wear/stains more. I’ve been leaning toward off-white and also light blue. Always hated the darker colors for dress shirt- as they don’t seem as lawyerly- too used car salesman-ish. But just my opinion. Also I try to avoid the patterned shirts or pinstriped shirts because it’s harder to match them up with ties.

  • I haven’t seen many 55/45 shirts that will pass muster, but there are some 70% and 80% cotton shirts that look pretty good, and also some 100% cotton “no-iron” shirts that aren’t bad either. Most of them still need a little work with an iron to look their best, but I agree not every occasion calls for best. A person can definitely get away with a 55/45 shirt for cleaning out the basement (I kid, I kid – you asked to be mocked and ridiculed!).

    • I only wear three piece suits when cleaning the basement.

  • Tom

    Have *NEVER* heard of a launderer / dry cleaner treating clothing by ANY other method than what the little fabric care / cleaning tag says. Period! Tell them to dry-clean a cotton dress shirt. They’ll nod their head yes but if the fabric tag says warm-water wash – that’s what they’ll do – EVERY TIME!

    Wash and iron your own fine dress shirts! 1, DO NOT wash them in an agitator-type washer – EVER! Buy – or go to a laundry – with “front-load” washers. Better than hand-washing … Spot-treat dirtier areas as needed and double-rinse all the detergent out! Better yet, use a white-vinegar final rinse; that’s squeaky-clean fabric!

    Starching an entire dress shirt is pretty pointless – especially if you don’t remove your suit-coat or jacket. The most important parts that “show” are the collar, cuffs and chest area. Get a generic plastic spray bottle. Fill it with 1/4 liquid starch and the rest distilled water. NEVER machine-dry your fine dress shirts – and be sure to iron them damp – not “wet”. Spot-spray these “show” areas with the starch solution and iron the rest of the shirt normally.

    Know how to self-care as much as possible for the dress clothes – AND SHOES! – that you own. The author is spot-on about a steamers and steaming wrinkes, etc – and using them to freshen up “tired”, wrinkled clothing. Use ONLY distilled water.

    Take special care of woolen items – yes, moths will attack your fine suits and sweaters!

    If you don’t take care of fine dress items – by lack of knowledge or by neglecting them – then you shouldn’t buy them in the first place!

  • Josh Cunniff

    Get your clothes pressed at Men’s Wearhouse. It’s free. Simple as that.