‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, except when it comes to your wardrobe. According to a recent article in The Guardian, many clothing companies suggest denim jeans should be washed infrequently, if at all. Good reasons exist for this socially dubious advice. In particular, frequent washing breaks down the denim fibres, leading to a loss of structure and colour. Similar advice is offered for tailored suits; I have always been advised to clean my jacket and trousers with a clothes brush and to remove stubborn stains with warm, lightly soapy water. Dry cleaning, which bundles clothes into a fabric-frazzling chemical mix, should be avoided because it meshes the structure of the fabric and causes more dirt to get trapped, beginning a truly vicious cycle of corrosive cleaning.
Curiously, modern dilemmas regarding the frequency of a wardrobe wash down parallel those of the past. It is paradoxical that technological developments and more functional clothing have not necessarily simplified the cleaning process for all of the items in our wardrobe. That fashion and freshness have not always elided is today exacerbated by the revival of vintage vogues, which may require special cleaning treatment, and the increased popularity of certain fabrics and textiles once deemed outmoded, as in the case of tweed, or taboo, as in the case of fur.
Suffering for your style is therefore not just about physical discomfort. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for example, the ruff was one of the more popular, most expensive and ill-suited of items for regular washing. The complex arrangement of pleats that formed the ruff’s distinctive and highly desirable shape required starch to keep them aloft. A damp atmosphere, let alone water, would cause them to sag. Some of the most elaborate ruffs and lace could cost as much as a luxury sports car would today, so washing was a careful and much-considered process. Of course, regular washing as we understand it today did not really exist in this period. Other chores – land cultivation and food preparation, for example – could be considered more important than washing and soap was commonplace only from the eighteenth century. That said, attention the sartorial trendsetter Beau Brummell received for advocating white linens in the nineteenth century implies his attention to laundry was still somewhat atypical. Washing days became the norm only in the nineteenth century, the same period in which the notions of clean living and Christian sobriety were conjoined.
Of course, the no-wash rule does not mean that garments are not maintained. Over the years, I have gathered various innovative cleaning tips for clothes that should be washed infrequently, although not all of these are useful or sanitary. One of my favourite tips provides an effective remedy for men who get blood on their shirt collar after shaving – simply saturate a corner of a white cotton handkerchief with spittle (I did say some of the cleaning tips were not entirely sanitary) and then rub over the stain, which rapidly vanishes. On reflection, then, perhaps it is possible to be clean of clothing and conscience after all.