This post is admittedly a little on the frivolous side, but I could use some frivolity today. Even though the subject matter is treated light-heartedly, there is a serious message behind it. Well, perhaps semi-serious. I realise I am in a tiny minority, with my viewpoint, but here it is anyway.
I think that the clothes we wear to work or to make our art have no bearing whatsoever on the quality of our minds, our capacity for achievement, our application to the task, our trustworthiness or any of the other characteristics that are supposed to be conveyed, in an instant, by anybody wearing a uniform or a suit. There, I’ve said it. What you wear isn’t an accurate guide to what you can do, what you think or how well you can be trusted to do it.
Now, I realise that every profession has its de-facto dress code and that in business, there is a minimum standard of acceptable dress. I also realise that a huge majority of the population are enthralled by uniforms and the people in them. I get that. I just think you’re all mistaken in your assumptions about what the wearing of those costumes really guarantees. I mean that. I think you are making tremendous errors of perception. Those errors lead you to make terrible downstream mistakes, which cost you dearly. The costume is a wholly unreliable guide to the person wearing it.
Whenever a group of people become readily identifiable by the wearing of some norm of clothing (let’s use business attire as an example), what inevitably happens is that wannabes, who lack the skill and values of the original tribe of suit wearers, quickly realise that for the price of a decent tailor, they can pass themselves off as people of skill and tribal belonging too. Pretty soon, every shoe salesman, photocopy repairman, telephone sales operative and time serving consultant is dressed in a suit.
You’re supposed to think they abide by professional ethics and standards of conduct, that they have been rigorously selected and trained, in a lengthy and arduous training programme, by the brotherhood and that their admission to the ranks of suit wearers was contingent on their being able to demonstrate the saintly qualities of the original tribe of wearers. Do you really believe that? Do you think the ownership of a nice suit confers any of that quality control or assurance on the owner? Seriously? Gee, what if the suit was only rented?
Suits and uniforms are the refuge and disguise of the mediocre. It permits the deranged and psychotic to get away with it for longer than would be possible, if they were judged on their own merits. The imposters take advantage of the visual shorthand to slip past your radar. A suit is an opportunity to dupe you. Some of the stupidest people I have ever met, in business, had the sharpest suits. Fact!
Some of the worst artists I’ve ever known had the best kaftans and sandals! Some of the very worst musicians wore regulation orchestra suits, or as rock musicians, the jeans and t-shirts of that particular tribe. A turtle neck sweater, in black, does not make you a philosopher or poet. Wearing tweed doesn’t make you a wealthy country gentleman and all the Lycra in the world doesn’t make you into an Olympic cyclist.
Worse than disguising the mediocre, the uniform dress code also serves to minimise the outstanding. How can you tell, anymore, if all consultants look the same? How can you tell the competent from the incompetent? What distinguishes the brilliant from the dull? A business suit (your choice of dark blue, dark grey or black) ensures that everybody that has something exceptional looks totally unexceptional at all times. It’s the equivalent of wearing an office cubicle. If you retort that the bright guys stand out, even if they are wearing a suit, then I have to ask you what purpose is served by dressing them up the same as those less bright guys. What is achieved, in so doing? Are you trying to throw us off the scent, perhaps?
It has to be said that much of the pressure to wear a conformant, compliant costume to your work, whatever that is, is actually driven by the superficial things of life, such as fashionable consumption. Who would go out and buy their work clothes by choice, if they were not required by the job? The makers of all that specialist clothing want to make a living and so they have promoted the idea, over generations, that the clothes make the man. No they don’t. The clothes make the profit for the clothier.
Once upon a time, you wouldn’t have been seen dead, working in finance in the City of London, without your bowler hat. Now, miraculously, we do without them and strangely, there doesn’t seem to have been any noticeable adverse effects wholly attributable to their general absence. The hats seem to have had nothing to do with finance. Imagine that! Generations before that, the bowler hat was unacceptable and you had to have a stove pipe top hat to be seen to be credible. How the shape of the hat had any bearing on the quality of the gentleman beneath it, I have no theory. I imagine it had no correlation at all.
In an earlier time, soldiers were required to wear red tunics and there were rigid and strictly enforced rules about the presentation and deportment of said tunics, with infringements punishable by harsh penalties. In the soldiery today, they mostly wear drab khaki. What happened to all those carefully devised rules and regulations, designed to maintain discipline and decorum? Had all the red tunic wearers been comprehensively duped over that long period of time? Decidedly so.
It’s enormously funny that musicians have a uniform (t-shirt, jeans and jacket), painters have a uniform (smock, loose shirts, and grubby trousers) and tradesmen have their own work wear, as regimented and regulation as any military uniform. What a daily farce and charade we all engage in. Who do we imagine we’re fooling? Ourselves?
After the financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent frauds, scandals and bail outs, we now have incontestable proof that some of the biggest criminals that have ever walked the earth share this dress code characteristic in common: they all wear ties. Yet we still believe that wearing a tie confers trustworthiness on the wearer. We’ve also been slow to dress prisoners in ties, as a mark of their treachery, too. Perhaps that’s because so few of the fraudsters from the City were actually jailed (were any?)
Costumes, you see, are used lazily, like consumer brands. They’re a kind of shorthand that is supposed to save you the trouble of having to think. You don’t need to size up and evaluate the man. You can rely on his costume to tell you what he’s all about. Therein lies the opportunity for deception. The trust is so readily abused. Also, why should I wear something that gives you the opportunity to regard me with superficiality and prejudice? Why should I dress so that it gives you an opportunity not to have to think about who I am in reality?
Costumes affect not only who other people think we are, but who people see themselves as. People wearing a uniform of authority, for example, begin to act like the fantasy version of the stereotype that would wear such a suit. It erodes the wearer’s authenticity and takes responsibility away from the individual for their own actions, carried out while wearing the credibility costume, and puts the onus on the costumed group as a whole instead. We were just following orders, governor.
In an age where you have to find a way to be remarkable, just to be employed at all, putting yourself on the line and taking risks to do the work that is too difficult or risky for others to do, the uniform, or the uniform dress code, undermines your every effort to be recognised as a lynch pin. Rather than being dressed up and hidden, beneath an elaborate credibility costume, you increasingly need to be open, transparent, vulnerable, honest, authentic and real. That’s what counts, these days.
You almost need to be naked. Well, not literally naked, because that would be highly impractical, obviously, but you need a way to open up your soul to someone, letting them into your spirit, thoughts, fears, future, hopes and dreams, if you are going to attract customers, clients and collaborators. Doing your best work isn’t about being in a disguise, anymore; it’s about stripping yourself bare and exposing yourself, in the metaphorical sense.
Now that’s being naked!