When I was coaching my seven-year-old son’s soccer team, before each and every game, I told the players that they had to tuck in their shirts before walking on to the field. It is a show of respect, I told them, for the game and your opposition. Surprisingly they all did, even my son, and kept them tucked in. But for me, it’s not only a rule on the pitch. And so I used to get very disappointed every time I saw a grown man with his shirt untucked. Not just that he looked like a lazy seven year old, but that he wasn’t showing the right respect to those around him – and himself. It was if he were proclaiming: “that’s it, I’ve given up. It’s too much effort and too fussy to tuck in my shirt.”
Then I had a sartorial revelation. But first I need to back up a bit and give you some context: the shirt as we know it used to be underwear. Over one hundred years ago, men would wear layers over their shirts – waistcoats cut high and jackets – and along with their cravats, very little of the shirt was ever visible, except by their tailors, doctors and other intimates. But as the 20th century wore on, men shed layer after layer of their clothes. First to go was the waistcoat, mainly due to indoor heating, although wool shortages during World War II helped. Then, even the jacket itself was left in the closet, especially with the birth in the 90s of the dreaded “going out” shirt. Shirts became a fashion object in and of themselves. And by the late 2000s, shirts got a hell of a lot tighter. Before, in the good ol’ days, you never saw your shirt, so other than the cuffs and the collars you damn well wanted it roomy. The better to move around in and especially sit down, when your waist naturally expands. But now that the shirt is on display, men feel self-concious about all that extra fabric billowing around their arms and bellies. Which is a shame – we abandoned comfort for fashion. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
I’m coming to my revelation. One of the purposes of waistcoats and jackets is to help cover and smooth over an otherwise unfortunate part of the male anatomy: the midsection. Or more precisely, where the belly is encased in the waistband. This pinching inevitably produces folds or bulges but a waistcoat or jacket hide them, creating a smooth line from chest to legs. But with the waistcoat and jacket gone, and with pant waists sinking lower and lower, while we all got larger and larger, and suspenders replaced with pinching belts, there was a problem. The unfortunately prominent gut. The solution? Leave your shirt untucked.
So in a way, the current fashion may owe as much to sartorial necessity as it does sloppiness. However, I am in no way condoning the untucking of shirts. Unless, of course, your shirt is meant to be untucked, like a guayabera. Which you should only wear in the heat of summer and preferably in Havana.
However, I welcome that the shirt has become a wardrobe piece on to its own. No longer hidden under layers of wool and linen, the shirt is free to be cut in many ways, in many patterns and of many fabrics. And a well-made, well fitting shirt can be almost as flattering and elegant as a jacket or blazer. This is especially important in the heat of summer when no matter how light, how unstructured, how unlined your jacket may be, you are forced to doff it out of sheer need. Just keep the shirt tucked.
How I roll up my shirt sleeves
Enjoying an “Italian Fold” with an Italian Iced Tea.
A shirt is not a jacket and must be worn differently, to take advantage of its unique elegance. For instance, do not wear a tie if you are not wearing a jacket. You’ll look like an accountant who’s been up all night or a waiter at a cheap Italian restaurant. Instead, lose the tie and unbutton one or two of the top buttons – depending on how warm and confident you are – insuring that you are wearing a strong enough collar that it will stand up on its own (and not wearing a crew-neck tshirt underneath). A button-down with a full roll is perfect for these situations. I get my custom shirts made with a high second button so that when the top button is undone the collar doesn’t lay too far open. Almost as important, however, is how to roll up your sleeves.
“Roll” is perhaps the problem word here for if you are to literally roll up your sleeves, you will be left with two water wings protruding from just above your elbows. Which might be fine when you’re digging ditches but let’s face it, very few of us dig ditches any more. Instead, you have two options.
The “workingman’s fold” involves two steps: pulling the sleeve up past the elbow, and then folding the sleeve up over the cuff.
First, the “working-man’s fold” (which is what I call it while others call it the “European fold,” which I don’t understand because I’ve only encountered it in North America). You start by folding back the cuff and pulling it up your arm well past your elbow. You then take the remaining sleeve fabric from your forearm and fold it up and over the exposed cuff just past your elbow, leaving a little bit of cuff showing. This is an ideal fold for when you have some actual work to do – like washing dishes – and want to keep your sleeves clean.
The “Italian Fold” which just involves folding the cuff back twice.
Second is what I call the “Italian fold”, mostly because I saw it a lot in Italy although they have no monopoly on the process. It is a very simple fold and produces perhaps the most elegant sleeve silhouette in summer. Simply fold back the cuff twice, the second time tucking it into the sleeve fabric. This exposes about half of your forearm, just enough to make Victorians nervous but not enough to look like you work in a printing shop. The danger of this fold, however, is that it can place a fair amount of strain on the fabric at the elbow. This is a real danger, of course, because this fold is most often employed during summer backyard cocktail parties, when you are bending your arm repeatedly to bring drinks to your mouth.
The “Cuban Fold.” Not recommended.
The one fold I would not recommend is the “Cuban fold,” thus called because I first heard of it from a Cuban tailor. When he saw me attempting a workingman’s fold with one of his gorgeous new long sleeve guayaberas, he quite forcefully put a stop to it. Instead, he insisted, it is far more elegant to simply fold back the cuff once. Disculpa, mi amigo, but this fold just doesn’t work. First off , you are left with a lot of fabric flapping around your wrist. Second, the fold almost always comes undone as soon as you reach for your first mojito. And third, only a few inches of forearm is exposed, making the whole procedure almost irrelevant. Remember, we are striving for a balance of elegance and temperature regulation.
How I hang my shirts
Now that our shirts are on full display, they must be in good order. You would not wear a wrinkled and shape-less jacket – I trust – so why do that with a shirt? Especially when they are so easy to care for, in comparison to said jacket. And this care starts with what to do when you take your shirt off. Please, don’t just toss it at the foot of your bed, unless you are about to engage in an act of you-know-what. As the great butler Stanley Ager said, “It’s just as easy to put them away as to drop them on the floor.” I differ from Mr. Ager, however, in that I don’t like to store my shirts folded in a drawer. They take up a fair amount of room this way and if left for too long, develop strong creases. And even though I use a lot of tissue paper to insure a crease-free shirt when packing luggage, it feels just too fussy and time-consuming for every day use.
Instead, I hang all my shirts. On wooden hangers. As the blog Put This On said so well, “Don’t use wire. You’re not an animal.” Wire hangers dig into the shoulders and deform a shirt. Wooden hangers help the shirt maintain its shape as well as absorb a bit of moisture if the shirt has just been worn. And they can be found by the bundle at low prices so there’s no excuse. I like to hang my shirts back-to-back and with the top button done up, which my shirt-maker insists is unnecessary and kind of strange. I maintain that by hanging them back to back, the roll of the collar is protected, as long as your closet isn’t too full. Buttoning up the shirts serves two purposes: helping to insure they don’t slide off the hangers and – the one my shirtmaker doesn’t really believe – helps preserve the rounded shape of the collar lining.
I also arrange all of my shirts by colour and pattern. Obsessive, yes. Unnecessary, no. Organizing my shirts helps me overcome one of our modern ailments: decision fatigue. When you have a lot of decisions to make, you make them worse the more decisions you make. I feel at ease when I open a menu at a restaurant and find only two or three items. The encyclopaedias of food you find at most Vietnamese restaurants, where the list goes well over one hundred, is nearly paralysing. It kills conversation and can require every ounce of cognitive strength you can muster. When you’re hungry. People in those situations tend to make poor decisions, or the same one over and over (#55 Bún Thịt Nướng). And since I own a fair amount of shirts, I don’t want to add to that pressure. Now, instead of ten or twelve decisions, I only have two: colour or pattern.
How I launder my shirts
As you might expect, my advice is not “Take them to a dry cleaner.” While it is easy, there is a cost you are paying more than money: the life of your shirts. Industrial cleaners, due to their harsh chemicals, harsh processes and intense pressing, will greatly accelerate the deterioration of your shirts. Instead, why not join me in the enjoyable, cost-saving tradition of washing your shirts yourself?
Most of the time, you only have two places you need to worry about on a shirt: the collar and the cuffs. And that ring around the collar can be a royal pain. I have tried many, many methods but there is one I keep returning to and it centers around bar soap and hard work.
Start by thoroughly soaking the collar and cuffs in a bucket of cold water. As per Mr. Ager, you can add a couple of drops of ammonia to soften the water which helps develop more soap suds. Never use hot water as it can help set the stains. Now, I won’t lie to you, cold water is harsh. It hurts your hands and the temptation is to just warm it up until it’s manageable. Don’t give in. This is your chance to be all commando and feel the pain. Once the shirt is well soaked, vigorously rub in the bar soap, trying to build a lather. It turns out, the lather does a lot of the work of lifting dirt out of the shirt’s fibres. Once the soap is worked in, grab the fabric and rub it against itself. I have tried toothbrushes and washboards but nothing is as effective as the fabric itself. Rinse the collars and cuffs by continuing to rub them but this time under the water. Take them out and repeat the process. But after your second rub down, don’t rinse the shirt. Bundle it up and place it, with a few other pre-treated shirts, in a plastic bag. Close up the bag and leave it for at least 30 minutes, if not over night. The bag insures the shirts don’t dry out while the soap is performing its magic of slowly lifting the dirt out.
The next morning, pull the shirts out of the bag and put them in the washing machine. I always wash my shirts in cold water on the Permanent Press cycle, which is rather gentle. I think this is important because washing machines, especially the politically correct front loading kind, don’t do much more than get your clothes wet. So you might as well not punish them at the same time. You’ve already done most of the cleaning yourself, by hand, so this is a glorified rinse. I do use soap but stick to unscented, cold water soap. I want to smell like me not an artificial mountain breeze, thank you very much.
I always hang-dry my shirts, never tumble dry. Again, the heat of the dryer can set stains and I fear the strain of tumbling around in there is doing more damage than good. Let your shirts air-dry while you contemplate the best part of cleaning your own shirts: pressing.
How I press a shirt
This video of a man pressing a shirt went viral a couple of years ago. It starts with a big, wide table, a small man, a white shirt and an iron. The video is almost fetishistic. The man quickly but methodically lays out the shirt and irons it in a way I’d never seen before. He starts with the front plackets. Then the sleeves. Then the collar. Then he lays the shirt flat and irons the inside of the back. Then he buttons up some of the shirt buttons and irons the front. Finally, he turns the shirt over and masterfully folds it into a perfect display model.
I think most people watched the video to see a pro at work and marvel at his technique. There is also something mesmerizing and even meditative about his process. But I studied the video like the proverbial student with his master. I took in every movement and every technique. I too wanted to iron a shirt perfectly. But I didn’t have the right tools, which would stop most people long before they even thought to themselves “I’m going to get into ironing my shirts.” The first thing I needed was an ironing table.
I hate ironing boards. They are awkward and tippy and I don’t know how many times my old home iron has fallen off and crashed to the ground. It has the scars to show for it. So even though I wanted to properly take care of my clothes and iron my own shirts, I hated the process. But maybe a table would change all that. I found a Martha Stewart how-to on making an ironing table. It required a trip to a hardware store for a piece of plywood 45” by 30”. Then a trip to a fabric store for some sheets of heavy cloth and muslin, fabric glue and tape. And I borrowed a powerful stapler from a friend.
The work was pretty straightforward, folding sheet after sheet over the board, carefully, methodically, anally stapling each into place just so. The final step was fabric tape that not only made sure everything was sealed and wouldn’t come undone, but it insured the table met the Martha level of craftsmanship and obsessiveness. There isn’t a loose bit of fabric anywhere and after a year of use, it still has a lovely, firm bounce to its surface. I am very proud of my table and often bring guests to my basement to show it off.
When the board was finished I placed it on my worktable and… failure. My table was so low that I had to crouch to iron not the regal, carefree stance of the man in the video. So, I fashioned two extenders made up of 2x4s to lift the table to just the right height so I could iron without stooping.
So there I was, table finally built and set up, iron nice and hot and steamy. And one washed but wrinkled shirt. As much as it was a sheer pleasure to have the vast expanse of the table to work on, it took me many, many shirts to unlearn how I had learned to iron. This new Youtube-Asian-man technique is not instinctual. Ironing the inside of the shirt seems wrong. And it sometimes felt like I wasn’t getting every nook and cranny.
But over time, my technique got better, I developed my own style, and now I actually look forward to ironing. Yes, I look forward to ironing. I turn on some music or a podcast and I have a 30 minute moving meditation that not only calms my mind but means I have a closet full of beautifully pressed shirts. I’m even tempted to film myself and post it on Youtube.
Pressing a shirt, step by step
Here is how I press a shirt. And by the way, “press” is the key word because like the gentleman in the above video, a fair amount of pressure goes a long way in getting rid of stubborn wrinkles. Plus, you’re mostly pressing down, not just moving back and forth. If you have an ironing station, the shirt does not have to be too damp, just make sure your iron is very hot and on full steam mode. That said, even with a lot of heat and steam, some pre-dampness will give you an even better press so have a spray bottle handy and give your shirts a light misting before you begin ironing.
Press the front plackets.
Press the collar but, unlike the man in the video, I never iron where the collar meets the shirt. There might be a bit of a ring there and ironing it will make it permanent.
Iron the sleeves. First, the cuffs, second the sleeves themselves. Unlike the video, I simply flatten the sleeves in the natural position and iron one side. Don’t iron right to the edge of the sleeve or you’ll get a strong crease.
Lay down the shirt open on the table. Iron the back of the shirt from the inside.
Button up the collar and a button half way down the placket, so that the shirt stays in place. Lay the shirt down as smoothly as possible and iron each side of the front of the shirt.
Slip a wooden hanger into position and hang the shirt, ready to wear.
[This post is part of a series on wardrobe care, which will include shirts, accessories, suits, shoes and more. After all, if you are going to invest in quality garments it is just as important to take care of them properly, so that they not only remain in good condition, they actually improve with age.]