How to stay stain-free while you’re wearing white clothes

So fresh and so clean.
So fresh and so clean.
Image: AP Photo/Thibault Camus
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Summer’s almost here, and with Memorial Day in the US, the official start to the season of wearing white. Our Instagram feeds are about to be full of happy people in fluttery white garments who apparently exist in some unknown ecosystem in which there is no food, drink, dirt, grass, pets, or children.

For the rest of us, white or light-colored clothing is aspirational. It is wearable hubris. It is the sartorial equivalent of beautiful wax-and-feather wings—thrilling, yes, but O how perilous the risk of flying too close to the sun! Or to guacamole.

But it’s summer, a season in which both hope and sales on crisp white shirts and breezy linen cocoon dresses abound. You can find laundry instructions elsewhere. Here is Quartzy’s guide to keeping clothes clean when it matters most: when they are actually on your body.

At home

Your battle against staining begins here, in the period between getting dressed in the morning and actually leaving your home. Even if you move through the house like a graceful swan that never splatters toothpaste or green smoothie across its feathery breast, not everyone in the house may share your commitment to cleanliness. Children and pets are notoriously unhelpful on this front.

The most important tool in your arsenal for exiting the house unsullied? The cover-up.

For waist-up coverage, an oversized boxy T-shirt popped over the top of your outfit will do. On days when you need to look decent from head to toe, a long waiters-style apron that covers your thighs, or a floor-length caftan, works nicely, followed by the big T-shirt, if necessary, for extra protection. (I work remotely and do a lot of video calls, so I make the distinction between “waist-up” and “whole body” the way news anchors do.)

If you are concerned about messing up your hair, use a buttondown. Though let’s be honest: if you had the kind of life where your hair was unmussably perfect every day, you probably wouldn’t be reading a post about how to stay clean in your own home.


You need to wear your protective garb until the last possible moment before encountering other humans, or at least those whose fashion opinions you value.

If you travel to work in the privacy of your own vehicle, I highly recommend wearing your protective garb until you reach your destination as a barrier to car dirt, spills, and whatever else might be sticking to your seats. And even if you commute by public transportation, will anyone really notice or care that you’re wearing the free T-shirt from the Long Beach 2009 Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot 5K? They will not.

On the rare day when I need to show up to a work event looking respectable, I will wear these garments until my children and I part ways at school drop-off. (Bonus: No one ever asks a woman in a giant old T-shirt that says “BEER DELIVERY GUY” to come to the PTA meetings. Trust me.)

Whatever your strategy, once the cover-ups come off, give yourself a quick brush with the lint roller that you store strategically by the door or in your bag, like a person who has his or her life totally in order. And always—always!—set the coffee cup down before digging around for your keys.

On the go

In a bag or in your desk drawer at work, you will keep the following items: a lint roller, a stain-removal pen, and a small container of baking soda. Reports from Quartzy’s vast global network of messy people indicate that Tide to Go pens and their ilk can worsen the appearance of certain stains in the short term. Product marketing manager Colette Keane, a master strategist of stain avoidance, recommends a paste of baking soda and water instead.

At the table

There is no greater threat to your personal cleanliness than the human need for sustenance. Fortunately, Keane’s long experience in the stain-fighting arena brings us this life-changing trick: the eating scarf.

The eating scarf is an attractive, dark-print scarf that you keep in your bag or desk. When it’s time to eat or drink, drape it loosely around your neck in the relaxed fashion of a person confident that all their sandwich is going to make it into their mouth. And voila. You are an adult wearing a bib in public, and no one’s the wiser. (Keane prefers a black, pleated silk number with a small multicolored pattern that hides all.)

So go forth in those summer whites with confidence. And “don’t worry about it too much,” Keane told me, her parting words of wisdom. “As with most things in life, people are always paying way less attention to you than you think. Let that set you free.”