“Dry Clean Only” Clothes and How to Wash Them

What Does the "Dry Clean Only" Label Really Mean?Do you check the fabric care label on a piece of clothing you’re thinking of buying? When you find out that it reads “dry clean only,” do you put it back on the rack, or resign yourself to expensive and inconvenient trips to the dry cleaner? We haven’t talked about how strictly we should follow washing instructions like “dry clean only” in quite a while, so let’s chat about it.

“Dry Clean” vs. “Dry Clean Only”

First, what do “dry clean” and “dry clean only” labels actually mean? Technically, the former means dry cleaning is recommended while the latter means dry cleaning is a must. According to Martha Stewart Living, you can hand-wash or use the washing machine’s cold cycle for unlined clothes made from natural fibers or polyester, while the dry cleaner is your best bet for suits, pleated skirts, rayon and other “delicate synthetics,” silk, wool, leather, suede, and clothing with sequins, beading, or metallic pieces. The article points out that clothing manufacturers err on the side of caution by saying “dry clean only;” they want to reduce the risk of customers returning clothes damaged by improper home washing. (By the way, over at CorporetteMoms we regularly feature machine-washable workwear.)

Here are several more tips for washing “dry clean” or “dry clean only” clothes at home, including advice we’ve collected from Corporette readers’ comments:

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Putting Together Work Outfits Using Suit Separates

Work Outfits Using Suit SeparatesHow can you make professional, stylish work outfits using suit separates? What are the do’s and don’ts of combining parts of the suits in your closet? Reader A asks…

I’m a 2nd year law student in New York and will be starting work at a firm this this summer — I used your tips and articles throughout the interview process. I would love to hear your thoughts on this: Can I wear suit pieces as separates? For example, can I wear my gray suit pants with a white shirt and then a black blazer?

Great question, and one we haven’t talked about in a while. (For other work outfit ideas, check out this post on building a capsule wardrobe for work, or this old post on building your professional wardrobe.) You absolutely can wear your suit pieces as business casual separates — that’s part of why a suit with separates is such a great investment to make. Here are some suggestions for creating your work outfits:

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When Drycleaning Just Doesn’t Help

drycleaning doesnt workReader E has a fabulous question that we have always wondered about…

I just got some dresses back from the cleaner – a good one that I’ve been using for years – and noted that the underarm areas smelled less than fresh. What can I do about this, short of sending the dresses back to the cleaner (and possibly having them no fresher)? I’ve been trying to switch to washable shirts – detergent + Oxy Clean do a better job of getting rid of the stink. But meanwhile, what of the dresses?

Honestly, we’ve had this problem also, and don’t know what to say. (Pictured:  Stinky Bklyn, originally uploaded to Flickr by abbyladybug.) We’ve taken them back to the drycleaner, sprayed Febreeze, and more. We almost worry that once the clothes have been drycleaned the stink is, well, stuck on them.  We wish we could say the problem were limited to some particular fabric, but we’ve noticed it with natural fibers as well as polyester.  Perhaps there’s a secret trick we’re missing that a reader can clue us in on?

The best advice we can offer is to let your clothes airdry completely between wearings.  Hang them up outside the closet before you put them away, and do the same before you take them to the drycleaner.

But readers, we’re really curious — any other tips?


Passing the Sniff Test: What to Do When You Belatedly Realize You Have B.O.

just realized i smellToday’s reader mail comes from a reader with a serious problem…

I happened to see my mother at lunchtime today and when I walked over to her, she had a strong reaction – she said I smelled! I had just come from work and was going back to work, so I was obviously very upset. When I inquired a little further, she said that I actually have a body odor issue, apparently on a somewhat regular basis. I was shocked. First because I truly had no idea; second because neither my mother nor sisters nor other close friends have ever given me any indication I had a problem. Now I’ve moved on to mortification. I’m reliving every moment of my professional and professional life and wondering if I’m thought of as the stinky girl.

I realize that I need to take steps like finding a stronger deodorant-antiperspirant (I thought my old one worked fine), dry clean my suits more frequently (I used to do it once every few months), etc. But is there anything I can do to address the negative impact this must have had on my image – professional and otherwise?

To give a little more background info: I’m nearly 32 years old and have been working in my current job for a little over a year. I just received a very decent raise at my review. I’m also happily married to a man who has never mentioned that I have any body odor issues. At the same time, I don’t doubt my mother’s word…we’re close and she’s said she’s hesitated telling me for quite some time. (I wish she’d told me sooner!)

I have vowed I will never be smelly again. Do you or your readers have any other advice for damage control?

Wowza — we’re sorry to hear this. We’ve already talked about antiperspirant and deodorants here (with tons of great recommendations from readers in the comments). In terms of other tips — we would guess that drycleaning once every few months is fine, so long as you’re wearing decent layers beneath the suit.  For example, if perspiration is a problem, don’t wear sleeveless shells — wear t-shirts or other pieces with sleeves.  We hate to say it, but you may also want to reconsider your underwear and your drycleaning situation — skimpier underwear might necessitate more frequent cleanings.  (We had a lot of good comments on specific brands of boy shorts on this post.) [Read more…]

Reader Mail: How seriously do you have to take the “dry clean only” warning?


2016 Update: Check out our latest discussion on how to care for dry clean only clothes!

Today’s reader mail has to do with something near and dear to our hearts…

It drives me crazy when everything is labeled ‘dry clean only’. For wool and fine fabrics, ok. But synthetic tops labeled d.c.o.? Please. Am I correct in thinking this is butt-covering on the part of the manufacturer, and it’s safe to hand-wash these, and lay them flat to dry? This is what I usually do, and haven’t ruined anything yet, but they are huge pain to iron. This is why I hugely favor thin sweaters under jackets.

Agreed. When purchasing a piece of clothing, we often factor dry cleaning into the mix — that $50 dress at Filene’s starts to look a lot less reasonable when you think of the dry cleaning costs associated with it. First, there is a difference between “dry clean” and “dry clean only” tags — the ones that say “dry clean” CAN be washed in Woolite or by hand; it’s the “dry clean only” tag you’re supposed to pay attention to at your own risk.  So what should you risk?  Personally, we’ve always followed the dry cleaning instructions for our suits, jackets, and nice dresses — as well as for any other piece of clothing that we seriously love.  For everything else (which is most stuff), we have a “first year” policy:  for the first year we own a piece of clothing, we follow the instructions on the tag.  After that, we give it a whirl with Woolite.  Thus far, this policy has only netted us one shrunken going-out top (made of a synthetic material like polyester), but lots and lots of clean cashmere an wool sweaters, and even some trousers that have come out just as nice with Woolite.

We’ve experimented with Dryel, as well as hand washing, but mostly without success — Dryel didn’t seem to get the clothes as clean (although, let’s face it, sometimes a suit passes the point of no return and just won’t smell clean), and hand washing just was a huge, drippy mess and made us feel like the clothes were being pulled farther out of shape by either a) being rolled in a towel to dry them, or b) being hung up while still so wet.  Readers, what has your experience been?

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Dmitriy Sudzerovskiy.

Reader Mail: How seriously do you have to take the "dry clean only" warning?

Poll: How often do you dryclean suits?

how-often-to-dryclean-womens-suitsWomen’s suits: No one really knows how often to dry clean them. For men, the answer that is given time and time again is the same: Rarely. Once a season, maybe. The less the better. But then again, men’s suits fit differently than women’s, and the things men wear beneath a suit (the long-sleeved shirt, the undershirt, the boxers) are very different than things a woman wears beneath hers — our skin is in contact more with the suit. So let’s take a poll: how often do you dryclean? (Photo by uncleboatshoes, courtesy of Flickr.)

Except! Before we get to the poll, we’d like to pass along this advice from a recent Esquire article by Dr. Oz (he of Oprah fame):

De-plastic your dry cleaning. Right now. Go into your closet and remove the clothes from their plastic capes, then hang the clothes outside for an hour. There’s a toxin almost all dry cleaners use called perchloroethylene, or perc, and it’s not something you want in your lungs. So either find a dry cleaner who doesn’t use it — some now use liquid CO2 instead, which is good — or air out your duds every time. But not in your bedroom — then the perc inhabits your other clothes.

Ew. OK, poll time:


Our $.02: Dry-cleaning is expensive, bad for the environment, and bad for the clothes. Also, we never seem to be available when the dry cleaners are open to go pick up the darn stuff. Thus: We dry-clean our suits as soon as they begin to smell. For other items in our closet: We have a “first year” rule for cashmere, and will follow the tag directions for the first year of purchase, but after that we’ll give it a whirl in cold water with Woolite. (And, then air dry, of course.) (And we have yet to be disappointed with Woolite.) For dresses, we dry clean only if visibly dirty — unless we’ve borrowed a formal gown from a friend, in which case we dry clean it before returning.

Like our polls?  Click the new link on the sidebar and go take all of our polls, including our very first poll (about whether bare legs are appropriate in the office).

The Secrets of Style [Esquire] (scroll down, it’s there)
Dry Cleaning Your Clothes [Ask Men]