*I was walking through a parking lot in downtown Los Angeles one afternoon, when the tan, fit, well-dressed forty-something blond man coming my way issued a greeting, accompanied by a pregnant gaze that suggested he wanted to say more. Once he got just past me, he did.
“Hey,” he said, pausing and swinging around. “Here.” On the business card was his picture and the name of a Beverly Hills realty firm. “You just look like a man who wants to buy a house,” he said assuredly, before I could speak. “Should that be the case between now and three years, please give me a call.”
I thanked him, moved on and wondered if he’d have said that had he seen me a few yards later, as I was climbing into my 20 year old car. I knew why he’d stopped me. Certainly not because of the faded jeans or the sneakers. It was the shirt.
It was a simple white, long sleeved button down dress shirt…that had been starched within an inch of its existence. I doubt I was the only stranger to receive the guy’s card that day. But to him, my starched shirt suggested I might be in the market for multi-million dollar digs.
Starch has that effect. There is nothing quite like a starched, button down cotton dress shirt to incite order and the ascendancy of casual elegance over crinkled informality. I prefer my dress shirts starched.
But not just starched. Should they have to, I want my shirts to be able to carry on without me. A heavily starched quality oxford can double as a back brace. And while I wouldn’t want to test it, I truly believe that, depending on the caliber, one of my starched shirts could stop a bullet. That stuff called Sizing is an insult. Like I said, I like my shirts starched.
Like many things in my adult life, my preoccupation with starch dates back to my childhood in mid ’60s Oklahoma City, and, in this case, a tall, quiet, bronze gentleman who lived around the corner from us, Mr. Adams.
Mama and I would run into him at the neighborhood Safeway, or see him with Mrs. Adams sitting at the counter at Grady’s, a tiny popular hamburger spot. When together, they were always holding hands, the kind of thing I thought grown ups dispensed with after marriage. Occasionally, I’d happen upon him on the sidewalk while riding my beloved silver Stingray bike.
No matter where I saw Mr. Adams, he always had a smile. Making a living with his hands—either as a mechanic or a gardener, or both—didn’t keep him from looking cleaner than the board of health. The pencil mustache was always trimmed; the short, mildly processed ‘do always in place. Sometimes he’d be head to toe in gray or tan work khakis, the pants equipped with a crease that could cut a human. Or a suit and tie. Or trousers and a waist jacket of varying hue.
However, it was his starched shirts that fascinated me. They gave even his most casual ensemble a cool, noble sheen. Being a kid who lived to shed his school clothes every weekday evening, I was struck by how comfortable Mr. Adams seemed while all starched up just to take a scroll down Eighth Street.
Years later, I believe that, unwittingly, is what I learned from the man: the ability to wear a starched shirt without taking the look so seriously.
Today, among trendy skinny shirts purposely manufactured with wrinkles, and plaid button-downs in fuchsia and canary that cast desperately hip men as post-punk farmers, the classic starched shirt stands as a dignified anomaly. To the trendoid, coming across someone in a starched shirt is not unlike encountering a person with a facelift: upon first glance, you know something is different, you just can’t put your finger on it.
Of its wearer, the starched shirt demands a particular decorum. When was the last time you witnessed a person in a starched shirt engaged in a fistfight, or come out of that shirt at the scene of a car wreck and use it to create a tourniquet to stop somebody’s bleeding? You’re not going to see it, either. The guy will find plenty other says to help. Unspoken bylaws of the starched shirt don’t allow working up a sweat.
Of course, to some, a starched shirt is considered downright old fashioned. That’s okay. I’m a modern man who in many ways just happens to be old fashioned. I prefer wearing a watch whose face isn’t the size of my head. I still think of my cell phone primarily as a phone; I don’t require of it the capability to watch a damn movie while I’m standing out on the street. And I like my dress shirts starched.
How starched? Look at the photo accompanying this essay. Those are my shirts, just picked up from my cleaners. To see if they would literally stand on their own, I gingerly stood them up in the floor and stepped away. God as my witness, in the photo they are not hanging from anything, not leaning on the wall behind them, not being propped up in any way.
The shirts simply stood there, unassisted; were still standing long after the photo was snapped. If I can teach these bad boys how to drive, cook and leave the TV remote where I last put it, you’ll never hear from me again.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]