A New Wrinkle -- Shirts That Shed Wrinkles Are Pretty Hot Stuff In Men's Wear

Day One: Cautiously, I slip on the shirt. It's hot. Stiff. I stand, senses quivering, awaiting the first, warm warning of chemical burn. After 10 minutes, nothing. Nothing, in fact, after a 10-hour day. Whew!

Well, sure. Ordinarily, I would wash a brand-new dress shirt before wearing it. Get out the "sizing" - whatever that is. Soften it some. But this is one of those new "wrinkle-free" shirts, and I want to see if there's any toxic effect from the resin treatment they use to keep it smooth.

I'm going to wear three of these shirts for a couple of weeks to see what they do for (and to) me. Yup, giving up the old body for Team (Miami) Herald. What a guy.

But this is a major hoo-ha.

In men's shirts, the latest new wrinkle is the very lack of them.

"The excitement factor alone is increasing sales," said Berenice Turner, merchandising liaison for Burdines. Soon, she predicted, all of Burdines poly/cotton blend shirts, and a good percentage of its all-cotton shirts, will be wrinkle-free.

Wrinkle-fighting shirts are "the hottest development to hit the men's wear market in a long time," said Daily News Record, a national men's wear business newspaper.

"It is absolutely the major, major product development breakthrough right now," said Dave Fulcomer, vice president for men's division merchandising at J.C. Penney.

Forget the O.J. trial. Go fish, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. This is important.

The first day's shirt I tested was an Arrow light-blue oxford Wrinkle Free No-Iron Shirt, 60 percent cotton, 40 percent polyester. It had a couple of creases from being folded in its package, but it looked pretty neat.

Day Two: Ohh, now this feels better. I'm wearing a Geoffrey Beene Wrinkle-Free Pinpoint Oxford Shirt, 60 percent cotton, 40 percent polyester. It's a bit hot and stiff like the first day's shirt, but cooler and softer; it's thinner pinpoint cloth rather than full-fledged oxford.

Wrinkle resistance is hardly new. The apparel business has been toying with it at least since the 1950s.

Day Three: This is a bit stiff and hot again. I'm wearing the Thomson Perfect Wrinkle-Free 100 percent cotton shirt with "molecular memory." I notice that even this all-cotton shirt looks better at the end of the day than shirts not treated with the wrinkle-fighting stuff. Swell. Now bosses will expect us to look presentable all the way to happy hour.

The new wrinkle-free trend, which adds only a couple of dollars to the cost, is not limited to shirts. Before Christmas, Penney will have wrinkle-free poly-wool dress slacks that can be machine-washed, tumbled dry and worn without ironing, Fulcomer said. Poly-wool sport jackets will be similarly treated to resist wrinkles while they're worn, but will still need to be dry-cleaned because of their linings and internal stitching.

"We started with men's slacks two years ago - Savane pants," said Turner, of Burdines. "They were very effective. Now Dockers has a wrinkle-free line. Our entire casual pant and dress pant line, even the poly-wool blends, up to the $60 range, is all wrinkle-free."

"Pretty soon," she said, "the only thing not wrinkle-free will be your underwear."

Days four through six: After the first washing, all three shirts soften considerably, although the Arrow and Thomson shirts are still pretty hot. That seems to be due more to the thickness of the oxford weave than anything chemical. The thinner, pinpoint-weave Geoffrey Beene shirt is wonderfully cool and comfortable.

All three shirts emerge from the dryer pretty smooth. They lack crisp creases, and the seams pucker a bit, but once I put them on, they smooth out and look OK.

How do these shirts fight wrinkles? Nearly every shirt- and pant-maker claims its own process, which is superior to everybody else's, and thus top secret.

In general, though: The shirt or pant cloth is woven, then treated with a resin, which is set into the fabric with pressure and/or heat. Sometimes the weaving mill applies the resin and the shirt manufacturer sews it into a shirt, then heats and/or applies pressure. Sometimes the resin is put on and the heat and/or pressure is applied before the shirt is sewn.

The process "cross-links" the fabric fibers, giving them what one company calls "molecular memory," and making them wrinkle resistant or even wrinkle free.

"Wrinkle free" means the shirt can be machine-washed, dried and worn without ironing. "Wrinkle resistant" means it will probably look better with a little touching up with a medium iron.

Day seven: Drat! I wash the shirts, put them in the dryer and forget them until morning. All three are badly wrinkled from lying wadded up overnight. But I simply put them back through the rinse cycle, dry them again and pop them out the minute they're ready, and they look good as new. And they're a bit softer, even if none is as cool and soft as the silk or nylon shirts I prefer to wear in the summer.

One problem with many of the processes making shirts resist wrinkles is that heat, if high enough, reduces the fabric's strength, making shirts wear out sooner.

How many wearings should a guy expect?

"A rule of thumb is that a guy might have half a dozen shirts and wash them once a week, so he wears them 40 or 50 times a year," Fulcomer said. "They should last longer than a year."

Day 15: Well, I've worn each of the three shirts four times and washed them five times. I'm pretty impressed. All three look good. The two thicker ones are getting softer, even though they're still a bit warm.

All in all, I'd say the shirts work well. They might work better for mucky-mucks who get to park under the building and take executive elevators up to their air-conditioned offices than for peons who have to trudge 100 yards through August's pressure-cooker mornings.

But that's not your problem, is it, Bunky?