This is just one of the stories from our "I've Always Wondered" series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? What do you wonder? Let us know here.
Listener Agnes Welch sent in this question:
Why do dry cleaners charge more for ladies’ dress shirts than men’s dress shirts?
Most often when men drop off their shirts to be cleaned, they want them folded, according to Phyllis Shapiro, founder and president of Innovating Consulting Solutions and a faculty member at The New School’s Parson School of Design. That means that they are washed in a machine instead of dry cleaned. Women, on the other hand, tend to drop off their shirts to be dry cleaned and hung.
“It doesn't matter if it's a blouse or a man's or woman's shirt, if you dry clean it, it's going to cost more than if you launder something,” explained Peter Blake, executive director of South Eastern Fabricare Association, SEFA. “If you bring men's cotton, button-down Oxford shirts to the dry cleaner, they are not dry cleaning those. They are washing them. That's one of the misconceptions. People think just because you bring something to the dry cleaners that it's being dry cleaned, but cotton shirts — like men's business shirts — those are all being laundered. So there's a little bit of a difference." When asked if male customers knew that their shirts were being laundered and not dry cleaned, both Shapiro and Blake insisted that customers were aware.
Blake, who is vehemently opposed to gender-based pricing, also points out that the reason why dry cleaning some items might cost more than others is due to their size and design.
“Typically men's shirts are pretty straight forward — they are anywhere from 14.5 inches to 17.5 inches neck size — and button down. They go on automate presses and you can do 50 of them an hour, maybe 70 an hour. You can do two at the same time, it's a high production item,” he explained. “When you get to the blouses, because of the ornamentation or because of the size difference, they don't have automated presses to do those, so those have to be done on different presses and it takes a lot more labor. It takes a lot longer to do than the standard typical men's button-down cotton shirt and that's the biggest difference."
Any shirts that don’t fit the standard press — whether they be for smaller men or larger men or women’s shirts — should be charged more since they’d take longer to press, he said. This is why Blake recommends that dry cleaning places do not list gender on their price lists and instead determine their prices based on size and design.
However, some dry cleaners do not make that distinction.
Back in 1991, the Massachusetts attorney general's office conducted an experiment where a woman and a man brought the same pink cotton blouse to a number of dry cleaners. The woman — Barbara Anthony, chief of the Public Protection Bureau in the attorney general's office — was charged $3 compared to the $1.50 that her male colleague was charged.
Over the years, a number of states and cities have passed laws prohibiting gender-based price discrimination. According to the Los Angeles Times, California became the first state to prohibit such discrimination back in 1995.
If the price difference comes down to the size of shirts, why don’t dry cleaners just get smaller presses?
At the moment, there are no presses for smaller shirts, “because there is not really a call for it,” said Blake. "Think about how many men's shirts a typical place would have, it far outnumbers the number of women's blouses they'd get."
According to Shapiro, men still make up a majority of those who send out their clothes for dry cleaning and laundering.
Listener Carolyn Somerville sent in this question:
Why do clothing manufacturers sew the pockets shut?
Sewing pockets, vents and pleats shut can ensure that the clothes keep their intended shape during both manufacturing as well as the arduous shipping process.
"Garments are usually shipped even if they are made in this country, which nothing is,” said Shapiro. “They come shipped packed in boxes, flat, and if a pocket is askew and if it is packed up and is put on the water on a big ship coming from China for a month, it's going to be a disaster when it gets here.”
The pockets are sewn shut before the workers press the garments. Not only does this help with maintaining the quality of clothes during the shipping process, but it makes pressing easier and also helps avoid wear and tear once the clothes get to the store. For example, if pockets are sewn shut, people trying on the clothes in the store cannot put their hands in and stretch them out.
There is a lot of debate in some corners of the internet about whether people should cut their pockets and vents open once they purchase the clothes. "Oh my Gosh, please people, cut the vents open!" said Shapiro. "Can you quote me directly on that? Please people, cut the back vents open. It'll make it easier to walk and move in your garment."
But what if the person wants the coat or jacket to retain its shape? No, cut it open, Shapiro insists.
"There was a designer that created the product and they fitted it on a human being or the mannequin so that the silhouette and the line of it would be perfect when opened and if people keep their vent closed, it's because they didn't buy the right garment or else it should fit properly," she said.
“A lot of the time, men don't cut the pockets on their sports coats or on their suit jackets, because they then tend to put their hands or other things in it and they will get stretched out. If it's a pocket with a flap that you don't see the stitches, keep it closed if you want. That's fine. But on the back of something, where it's an obvious basting stitch — which is usually very long and big so it’s easy to snip and just pull out — that shows it should be cut."
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Listener Paul Hanneman sent in this question:
Why are belt sizes not the same as our waist size?
Like with most pants, there is no industry standard for belt sizing. For example, women’s jeans can be bought in sizes ranging from 0 to 16 or extra-small to extra-large or based on waist measurements. Belts, too, are made on different scales based on their manufacturer.
Yet even if the belt is made to fit based on waist size, the sizing can be a little off.
“It's called ‘vanity’ sizing,” said Ushbir Singh, who works at Universal Elliot Corp, a belt manufacturer in New York. “Where a person’s waist actually measures 34 inches but a belt marked 32 fits them, it's just a way companies make their customers feel better.”
At other companies, belts tend to be a little bigger than the actual waist size because the manufacturer is accounting for the extra layer of clothing in between the belt and your waist, explained Yinon Badichi, the founder of Badichi, a custom-belt design company in New York which avoids the belt sizing problem by measuring each client.
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