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Irons Need Not Apply

For business travelers, a new breed of wrinkle-free cotton means rumpled days are over.

A cotton dress shirt that stays crisp after a slog through the airport, three hours in coach, a long dinner meeting and a rinse in the sink--this, my friend, is the holy grail of the business traveler. OK, maybe not the grail. But the truth is, for years "no-iron" shirts have either wrinkled when they said they wouldn't or been coated with so many chemicals they looked flammable. Worse: They were often made of polyester or some other sweaty synthetic. We gave up and started packing a travel iron.

But this year, no-iron shirts are worth a second look--particularly those in the women's department. Manufacturers have made enormous improvements in fabric chemistry. Thinner, lighter and softer cottons such as broadcloth and stretch blends are now available in wrinkle-resistant finishes. And apparel makers have figured out how to tailor the flimsier no-iron cloth so seams don't pucker and collars stand up. "When we first started with no-iron technology, we made only a men's pointed collar dress shirt," says Walter Bearden, president of Foxcroft. Adding styling details was arduous, "but there's not a whole lot that we can't do now."

The category has boomed-but how do these shirts perform under pressure? We road-tested four popular brands, wearing them to work, play and even nap. We packed them into stuffed suitcases, wore them on long trips, machine-washed and dried them according to instructions. And in the end, we sent our travel iron packing.

1. Lands' End No-Iron Pinpoint Split-Neck, $44.50
The look: Casual Friday. A loose, blousy fit, even with darts in the front and back.
On the road: The 100% cotton pinpoint is lightweight and crisp, if a bit stiff. After a long drive and several meetings, it's still unwrinkled.
After a wash: Almost no wrinkles, and the collar and cuffs look brand-new. Wow.

2. Foxcroft Non-Iron Fitted Three-Quarter Sleeve, $58
The Look: Suburban mom. A roomy, open-neck shirt that seems made for a simple skirt or khakis.
On the road: The 100% cotton fabric is the heaviest of the group, and feels over-starched. But it resists deep wrinkles, even after we slept in it.
After a wash: Cuffs, placket and collar emerge perfectly flat, but the slightly dimpled fabric needed light ironing.

3. Talbots Wrinkle-Resistant Blouse, $79.50
The Look: Traditional. A long-sleeve dress shirt with no surprises. A trim waist makes a very neat tuck.
On the road: The stretch cotton is silky, without a hint of wrinkle-resistant treatment. But shortcuts on seam finishes and linings could make it less durable.
After a wash: Not "fresh pressed" but neat enough for a meeting.

4. Brooks Brothers Non-Iron Fitted Fine Stripe Dress Shirt, $89.50
The Look: Executive. The extra-lean "tailored fit" is the skinniest of the bunch and just right under suit jackets.
On the road: You get what you pay for. The stretch cotton feels cool and breathable and has a subtle sheen and texture. French cuffs with silk knot cuff links are classy, too.
After a wash: The sheen remains, the wrinkles mostly vanish--and the texture and stripes hide imperfections like a wily CEO.

This story appears in the November 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »