Is this the end of Dry Clean Only?

Thanks to the rise in athleisure, dress-down Fridays and our ongoing obsession with jeans, dry cleaning is on the decline. Thank God, says Laura Craik

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By Laura Craik on

I bought a pair of trousers the other day. Fascinating, I hear you say. Please, tell me more. OK – I will. They were black, wide-legged and £29.99 from Zara. I was pretty pleased with them. Wore them two days in a row (very unlike me). Got some compliments (also very unlike me). My kids didn’t point their fingers and laugh, as they do with most purchases. Life was good. And then I looked at the care label.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel I need a degree in Sanskrit to understand those bastards. No wonder they’re as long as cats’ tongues, and equally abrasive. Most times, I just cut them off because they itch, and I can never remember what an upside-down triangle with a line underneath it means anyway. Thank God I didn’t this time, otherwise I’d never have seen the P. Even I know what a P means. My glorious trousers were Dry Clean Only. Excellent – £29.99 for the trousers. £1,000,000,000,000 for the maintenance.

I love Zara, and it’s usually not that bad at giving its customers permission to wash their purchases at 30 degrees. Naming no names, but many high-street stores are worse. At a time when so many of us are feeling the pinch, it feels especially egregious to slap a Dry Clean Only disclaimer on a garment that didn’t cost much and was clearly bought with economy in mind. We all know why they do it: so that if the garment shrinks, they can’t be blamed, nor does the customer have any hope of asking for a refund. I’ve also noticed similarly pernicious practices among mid-market retailers, many of whom seem equally keen to stick a Dry Clean Only label on their clothes, this time for the purpose of charging extra. Sorry, mid-market retailers, but “P” doesn’t always stand for “premium quality”. Just as often, it stands for “piss-take”.

My glorious trousers were Dry Clean Only. Excellent – £29.99 for the trousers. £1,000,000,000,000 for the maintenance

Despite the proliferation of P labels, like a delicate fabric accidentally put on a boiling wash, the dry-cleaning industry itself has seen better days. While upmarket brands such as Jeeves of Belgravia and the newish, eco-friendly Blanc continue to thrive in the more affluent areas of London, elsewhere in the UK, the picture isn’t as rosy. The Johnson chain has admitted to being squeezed, the 620-strong Sketchley chain closed long ago and statistics portal Statista claims that spending on dry cleaning has been in decline since 2009.

Nobody would wish anyone’s business to go bust, but the sad truth is that it’s hardly surprising so many dry cleaners are in trouble. Apart from the fact that those on lower incomes are likely to see dry cleaning as a luxury they can cut back on, clothes just don’t get as smelly since the smoking ban. But the real culprits are surely the rise and rise of athleisure wear, the increased casualisation of the workplace and the trend for wearing jeans to pretty much any event bar a wedding. Although I did once work with someone who insisted on dry cleaning his Levi’s. But that’s another story.

True, there will always be some garments (damn you, pale pink coat) and some fabrics (hello, velvet) that require specialist dry cleaning, but, regardless of the high number of P labels to be found on the high street, it seems as though most of us are prepared to take the risk and stick things in the wash. With 97 per cent of UK homes estimated to have a washing machine, those cool-wash cycles have never been more popular. Yet it remains a risk. A 30-degree wash worked nicely for my Zara trousers. Alas, it didn’t work for my Sandro dress, whose P label turned out to be completely justified (if anyone wants a doll-sized navy smock with a Peter Pan collar and a scalloped hem, hit me up). Your mother was right: always read the label. Whether you obey it or not is completely up to you.



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Laura Craik

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