Clothing hang tags don't always tell the whole story

The designer clothes, glittering metallics, and soft sweaters tempting many shoppers this season may not live up to their price tags.

The key word is serviceability. Most people assume that a garment they buy will be wearable if the care instructions are followed. Unfortunately, that ideal does not always hold true, and paying a lot of money does not ensure quality.

As an example, Donald Tripolsky, associate director of the Neighborhood Cleaners Association (NCA), pulls out an indigo-blue print designer blouse which has an obvious blur where the dye ran into the white background. ''That happened just by wearing it,'' he says.

Mr. Tripolsky also cites the case of a $340 designer angora sweater that shrank to a doll's size with the first washing and displays a pleated skirt with an inverted design pressed into the pleats that would be impossible to reproduce after cleaning.

According to federal regulations set in 1971, all clothing must have a permanently fixed label specifying the fiber content and care instructions.

But the care instructions clothing manufacturers supply are not always accurate or complete, Tripolsky claims. He says that manufacturers, in their haste to get fashion clothing out on the racks, do not always take the time to test the product thoroughly.

Currently, many manufacturers use ''exception labeling.'' They offer one blanket method to cover all cases rather than providing the whole picture. The same garment, for instance, may be able to be hand- or spot-washed as well as dry-cleaned.

''Consumers should be given all the options,'' says Tripolsky.

A study by the Federal Trade Commission backed NCA lobbying efforts for alternate care instructions and penalties for misleading information. As it stands, the recommendations of the FTC report are on hold, and even the current protections may be repealed under the manufacturer deregulations proposed by the new FTC chairman, James Miller III.

More and more it will be up to the public to set the standards, Tripolsky says.

''When we buy wisely, then we'll get better merchandise,'' he adds.

Here are some pitfalls to watch out for when buying today's fashion clothing:

* Metallics. Lame clothing is luxurious but risky to wear. It tarnishes if anything is spilled on it, the fragile metallic yarns are prone to snap, and heavy creases do not come out easily. It is a good idea to wear dress shields and a slip or camisole to protect the fabric from normal perspiration, which may turn gold to a silver or pewter color. Some metallic threads will dissolve in normal dry cleaning. Glitter, which is usually glued to the outside of the garment, also cannot be dry-cleaned.

* Silk. Many dyes used for silk are not fast, Tripolsky says. Some fade with exposure to direct sunlight and some fade under indirect or even electric light. When buying a silk blouse or dress, check underneath the collar to see the true color, he advises, and try to avoid bright colors. Since perfumes and deodorants can affect the color and dye-bleeding may occur with normal wear, it is best to keep the silk away from direct contact with the skin. If the garment is too tight, the silk fabric may split or shred.

* Soft wools. When buying angora, cashmere, or lambswool blends, make sure the fabric is preshrunk. Otherwise, if the yarns are not stabilized, the garment will shrink excessively, even if it is dry-cleaned.

* Suede and leather. Be aware that leather can shrink. Skins are often stretched in tanning, and will relax back to their normal state.

* Designer jeans. Though intended for action wear, designer jeans are not always made from sturdy fabrics. Color loss can also be a problem, since dyes do not usually penetrate the tight weave.

* Pleats. For a closely pleated or fluted garment, it's best to avoid natural fibers, Tripolsky says. In natural fabrics the pleating is usually held in by sizing that is water or steam soluble; pleats in fabrics that are at least 65 percent synthetic are usually melted in with heat and tend to be more permanent.

* Prints. Always check the reverse side of a printed garment. If the print does not appear or is not as clear on the back side, chances are it won't be too permanent.

For a free booklet, ''Consumer Guide to Clothing Care,'' send a self-addressed stamped envelope to The Neighborhood Cleaners Association, 116 East 27th Street, New York, N.Y., 10016.

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