Shirts in Captivity
Life, dear readers, is chock full of mysteries. I still haven't figured out why hotels insist on putting the coffee pots in the bathrooms. I mean, that's just odd. Here's another one: When giving out phone numbers, we sensibly omit the required "1" that precedes the area code (its necessity is common knowledge, so it needn't be mentioned). And yet, people always recite it when providing phone numbers that are toll-free, such as those that begin "1-800" or "1-866." Why, I ask you? And why would the fine people at Post name a cereal Grape Nuts when it contains neither?
These are the things that keep your Curmudgeon pacing the floors late at night. I simply want things to make sense. Is it too much to ask? Clearly, it is. For now we come to one of the greatest mysteries known to man: the puzzlingly complex packaging of men's dress shirts.
Friends, you go to a clothing store. You select an item. You try it on. It's an easy enough process. Shoes, pants, suits, skirts, dresses, sweaters, coats . . . they're all available for your leisurely perusal. In most cases, you need not exert yourself beyond lifting the item from a shelf or slipping it ever so easily from a hanger. And off to the fitting room you go, or, if you're feeling particularly fancy free, you head right to the check-out line. It's your choice.
Men's dress shirts, however, are among the most carefully protected items in clothingdom. Folded using an ancient Japanese technique that no normal man can replicate and hermetically sealed in sterile containers, they occupy their own section of the store, where there is neither rack nor hanger, only stacks of the well-wrapped treasures. Here they're presented like exotic zoo animals, viewable only through plastic windows. And shoppers are expected to purchase them, still packaged, waiting until the garments are in their new home before freeing them from their restraints.
But that process takes some doing. Men know not to make plans on the day they purchase a dress shirt. The plastic bag is more or less a breeze. But then come the tags. Even this early in the process, tools are required. Those of us who've tried breaking those indestructible plastic loops by hand have learned that they don't surrender quite so easily. Even with scissors, it can take some doing. Some of the fancier shirts show their elegance by attaching even more tags, usually proclaiming the designer's name or even explaining the shirt's features (cloth? thread? buttons?). These tags are sometimes attached with pretentious little cords that are sometimes sealed within super-classy plastic medallions. Honestly, I just want to put on the damned shirt.
But it's still going to be a while. There remain the various collar stabilizers to get through, a complex configuration of fully unnecessary interlocking pieces designed to make your shirt look occupied even when it is not. There's a slatted plastic one that fits over the collar button. There's a strip that goes around the neck. There's even an inner loop. Of course, that one can't be removed just yet, because it's part of the square cardboard insert that holds everything else in place.
And then there are the pins—good God in heaven, the pins—three to four hundred of them—some imbedded in places you're certain to miss until you're in the middle of giving a speech at an important gala. The little monsters are everywhere—at the neck closure (wouldn't the collar button seem to be enough?), and up and down the sleeves, securing them in their unnatural position behind the back. The bastards have even perfected the art of imbedding them sideways along the edge of the cardboard insert. Show me the man who has never known the painful prick of a hidden shirt pin and I'll show you a man who has never bought a dress shirt.
Once you think you've removed all the pins (I assure you, you haven't), as well as the various collar apparatuses, square cardboard insert, and the useless tissue paper that lines the sleeves, you finally unfold the cursed thing only to discover a web of nearly permanent creases. These are folds of such robust stamina that there isn't even a distant possibility they'll release with simple ironing. One would be naive to think otherwise. These "supercreases" require several rounds with an industrial steamer before giving up their stronghold.
So, even with all that wrestling, you can't even wear what you've just bought. And meanwhile, you've assembled a pile of packaging trash that's larger than the piece of clothing it was presenting.
Remember, it's still possible the shirt won't fit. You don't know until you get it home and get past the aforementioned security system. (You're certainly allowed to unwrap shirts at the store to try them on—if you've got that sort of time to spare—but it's frowned upon.) If the fit is wrong, it's back to the store to start the process again. But what about the now unprotected shirt? Like a new car that loses value the moment you drive it off the lot, a de-packaged shirt is considered tainted and therefore relegated to the clearance rack. Thenceforth, it is viewed with undeserved suspicion as skeptical shoppers look for the flaw that earned this perfectly fine shirt the shameful status of "marked down." But the savvy shopper knows that here, in the clearance section, is where the real treasures are to be found. It's not just the lower price. It's the opportunity to find dress shirts presented as nature intended them, free of pins, hanging from hangers, and ready to be worn. Turns out they're able to survive in those conditions just fine.