Monday, March 12, 2012

Dry Cleaning Squeezed Again

I am going to go out on a limb and predict the demise of dry cleaning as a routine part of people’s lives. I come to this conclusion after reading a Guardian story on the United Kingdom’s largest dry cleaner, which finds that demand for dry cleaning is down in most areas, but still going strong in the most affluent neighborhoods.

The company suggests that this means workers are getting squeezed financially and have less money to spend on cleaning. I look at it a different way. The multimillionaires who are still getting as much dry cleaning as ever are the ones who are affluent enough to employ assistants to take their clothes for cleaning. But they are doing so, I believe, more because they are not paying attention to their own lives, and not so much because they have the money. People who are merely millionaires and have to take their own clothing to the cleaners also have the money to pay for the cleaning, but are not so easily able to find the time.

Then it is time pressure more than financial pressure that is causing the decline in dry cleaning. And though people’s financial fortunes may start to improve again this year, there is little sign that the time pressure will let up anytime soon. Rather, as time pressure continues to increase, dry cleaning will continue to feel the squeeze.

There is another reason that makes me believe dry cleaning cannot last much longer. What is dry cleaning, after all? It is the use of expensive and dangerous chemicals to clean fabrics that are too cheaply made to be cleaned with water. There is a certain backward-looking prestige associated with clothing made from this fabric, but this effect comes from the look of the clothing, not from the flimsiness of the fabric. With all the advances in materials engineering, it is hard to believe that the look of fine 20th-century clothing will not soon be replicated using fabric that does not melt when it gets wet.

This sturdier fabric will not only not require dry cleaning. It also will not require such a degree of craftsmanship to be fashioned into clothing. Twentieth-century clothing will suddenly be as cheap as blue jeans. And when the day comes that any starving university student can look like a London banker, I dare say the London bankers will decide they want to take on a different look.