Friday, March 25, 2011

A Starched White Shirt

My father worked at a downtown CPA firm until I was 14 years old, at which time he became the chief financial officer of an envelope company at Kedzie and Grand. His uniform, so to speak, during the 1950s and early 1960s was a dark suit, straight-collar white shirt and tie. In the days before permanent press, his shirts were sent to the laundry, where they were washed, starched, ironed and folded. They would reside in paper and plastic containers, neatly folded over a piece of cardboard, in his bottom dresser drawer until the chosen day for wearing.

Dad at work
As youngsters, my brother and I used the shirt cardboards for drawing, pasting photos or making charts. They were clearly superior to sheets of paper but had to be used judiciously because of their limited supply. When we ran out, we had permission to invade the bottom drawer and carefully remove the cardboards, making sure the starched white shirts were replaced in orderly fashion. 

My work, on the other hand, didn’t require a suit and tie until ten years into my professional career. Gradually, I went from various colors and styles of no-iron shirts to button-down laundered shirts to almost exclusively straight-collar, heavily starched white shirts. Sure, a blue or striped one would appear every so often but most were pure white, button- or French cuff; pinpoint oxford, broadcloth or, if on sale, Egyptian cotton. I now had ten suits (five winter, five summer) and the requisite number of dress shirts for proper rotation. Gordon at Little Bit Cleaner didn’t have to be told, “Hangers, heavy starch.”

Little Bit Cleaner, N. Clark Street

After some time, I realized that my attraction to these shirts wasn’t just to look professional, especially for clients, some whom were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. As that youngster fetching shirt cardboards from that bottom drawer, I associated the sight, touch and even the scent of a starched white shirt with being an adult, a successful and respected one like my father. It took me almost twenty years to reach the point where I thought of myself as being successful, and subliminally this included wearing a white shirt five days a week. Finally I was an adult and I was going to dress like one!

Three shirts

A manufacturing company on the West Side demanded less formal attire, and my father eventually went back to no-iron shirts in various colors of solids and stripes. Between the change to casual corporate dress and later (and present) self-employment, I almost never wear a suit and tie. My white shirts have been replaced by more stylish ones from Hilditch & Key and Charles Tyrwhitt. I still have a good supply of starched whites, and I’m going to wear one on Tuesday in dad’s honor.  He will be gone 38 years that day.  Sentimental, sure, but why not?

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