Pressing Issue for the '90s: Ironing

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's something you probably learned about not long after you hit puberty. Chances are, it was your mom who told you how it all worked. No doubt Dad was squeamish about the whole thing, as guys tend to be. (We want it done. We just don't want to know the details.)

For a while, it was easy to keep this valuable life lesson in mind. As you got older, though, you got lazy. It wasn't so much that you forgot the rules; you just didn't have the time for them. And now, as an adult of the '90s, you may not even do it anymore.

The subject, of course, is ironing. It's hot, it's steamy, and like sex, these days ironing seems to be losing some of its magic.

Sure, the iron-makers say it's never been more popular. Kelly Devaney, product manager for Sunbeam-Oster, the iron pioneers, says more than 15 million of the things were sold last year, up from the nearly 11 million sold a decade ago.

"It's something that's been around since the Stone Age," says Devaney, who specializes (yes, specializes ) in iron facts and figures.

But an anti-ironing movement may be groundswelling as people realize that there is another way to get the benefit of ironing without wasting time and energy doing it. After all, that's why God invented dry cleaners and get-that-iron-away-from-me polyester.

Card-carrying members of the movement seem to include the children of parents of perfection, who remember balls of damp clothes piled in the laundry room, waiting to undergo The Iron. They remember when school districts offered ironing as a component of home ec, and when it was tacky, tacky, tacky to leave the house with an improperly starched blouse or ( shriek ) if the Christmas Day tablecloth wasn't ironed at all.

Those were the days when men were men and women did the ironing.

No more. No way, say some.

"I used to iron almost daily, but it was too time-consuming," confesses David Millman of Los Angeles. "At first, I thought I'd beat having a dry-cleaning bill. But you could never do it good enough if you did it quickly, and I realized it was too time-consuming. Then I found a dry cleaner that was quick and reasonably priced."

Now, his steamy affair with ironing has grown cold. "The thrill is gone," he says. "I no longer take the pleasure in it I once did. It's a distant lover."

This and many other ironing breakups aren't just over the time issue. Consider the feminist backlash.

"The whole idea is a big (male) power play," says Los Angeles video store clerk and very infrequent ironer Lynn Oprie. "Women should realize they have the power not to iron."

Even Devaney admits that among ironers, there is a grumbling in the air.

In a Sunbeam survey, only 10% of respondents confessed that they enjoy the act of ironing. Sixty percent strongly disagreed with the statement, "I do it because I enjoy it."

"We asked around and just found that people hate to set up to iron, but once they start doing it, they don't mind," says Devaney, who was taught the art of ironing by her mother, who had observed her using improper techniques. "The benefit of ironing isn't the actual doing it. That's a pain in the neck."

The joy and rapture comes, instead, with wearing the finished product.

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As the world slowly acknowledges its irritation with ironing, fashion can't help but reflect the trend.

"Based on the American collections I've seen, the crinkled look is in," says Marin Hopper, an ironer since age 10 and senior fashion editor at Elle magazine. "The new texture for spring is the unironed look."

Sunbeam's Devaney is naturally a little defensive about all this, noting that going grunge may be OK in big cities like Los Angeles and New York but "not in middle America"--where ironing is alive and well. "And it will never be in at the workplace," she adds.

Still, some non-ironers are taking up arms, casting aside their spray starch and iron pads and low settings for iron-free clothing.

"Now people don't need to feel guilty about looking wrinkled," Hopper says. "Non-ironers can come out of the closet." And leave their irons in the closet.

Nor will non-ironers have to tell really outrageous lies to explain away their wrinkled wear, on the order of: "I was trapped in an elevator overnight and had to sleep in my clothes. . . ."

And we'll really miss the iron-while-you-shower method of "steam-ironing" clothes. (The way it works: The steam relaxes the wrinkles in the clothes as relaxes you in the shower, to the point where you don't feel like going out anymore--so it doesn't matter if your shirt has wrinkles.)

If the anti-ironing movement continues to grow, perhaps soon children will not have to endure a mother's lecture about starching technique. It seems the younger generation is already learning how to make more creative use of the appliance.

Which, come to think of it, may not be quite the relief it at first seems.

"We have a 6-year-old who, more than seeing an iron as a utensil for smoothing, prefers to use it as a booby trap just as he saw it used in the 'Home Alone' movies," says Los Angeles comedian Dennis Wolfberg, a dedicated non-ironer. "Now I'm starting to think if only there were movies where Macaulay Culkin actually uses irons to iron, maybe we'd be better off after all."

Self-confessed Los Angeles ironer Michele Dix would be a natural co-star.

About three months ago, Dix, a self-described "moderate ironer," was on her way to a party. She was in a rush, so she decided to iron her cotton shirt on the floor. When the phone rang, she accidentally burned herself on her ankle, and because of the pain of that injury, she started walking differently, which brought on a stress fracture.

"But I was back on the ironing trail the day after the accident," she explains, showing off the two triangle-shaped scars. "My fear of wearing poly-cotton mixes is greater than my fear of ironing. The iron has power over me. I'm no longer the operator."

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