12 April 2012
Why You Should Care About Clothes
Clothes are important. They say something about you. No matter how unfair it feels, people will make judgments about you based on your appearance. I wish we lived in a world where we could publicly and daily wear pajamas, booty shorts, ball gowns, or Snuggies without any personal judgment or consequences (good or bad). But it is not the world we live in, and there is no Utopia in sight. Judgment based on what we wear is a fact of life, and it always has been since the practice of wearing clothing began. I'm sure we've all seen or heard about or seen the sites that post pictures taken at Wal-Mart for the purpose of laughing at what clothes people wear. And I'm 99.9% sure when any us of see those Wal-Mart photos we don't then say, "Oh, but I'm sure they are a nice/good/valuable person." Nope, those photos bring up negative judgments about those people, their jobs, and their lifestyles.
Many people futilely rage against the fashion machine—futile because they still must make choices about what they wear, and these decisions will bring judgment and consequences (good or bad) with them. Sure, part of it is social conditioning, but I also believe we are predisposed to group ourselves by likeness or unlikeness because we want to feel accepted, at ease, and safe, and clothing plays a part in that. We group ourselves by language choices (think especially of the slang you use and work jargon), interests, politics, lifestyle, religion, and team affiliation, and we group ourselves by what we wear. We can even "code-switch" these group identifiers—changing our jargon, topic choice, or what we wear—to better fit into different groups as we move among them, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is natural that I make different speech choices with my friends than I do with my grandma, and that I wear different types of clothes to work than I do going to a movie with friends, because these things immediately mark me as belonging to different communities that all contribute to who I am. (Also my grandma wouldn't understand me if I pwnd her like a n00b.)
But our clothing choices (not to mention other grooming and cleanliness choices) not only place us within general groups or communities, but they identify us in other ways. We make clothing choices to make an impression (good or bad), to make a statement (even if that statement is "I don't care"), to comment on our socioeconomic status, to comment on how "hip" we are, to display our creativity, to get attention (good or bad), to attract, to repel, to show respect, and to show disrespect. As an obvious but effective example: Showing up to a desk job interview in jeans and a t-shirt says, "I don't care if I get this job and I don't respect your company's chosen image, or the interviewer for participating in the company's image." It won't matter how qualified you are, you're not getting that job. Well, unless you're in a movie or are some sort of mega genius who has trouble with social cues. Conversely, showing up to your first Hell's Angels meeting in a tweed jacket and bow tie will likely deny you acceptance in that group, and it may be dangerous to your health.
Relevant story time: I have a friend who is a dentist. He's a very easy going man who loves his chinos, jeans, T-shirts, and Converse, and he wore said clothing to work. His wife kept telling him he needed to dress up, at least a little, when he saw patients, but for years he didn't. He felt that this one aspect of who he was good enough. Then one day he realized that the way he dressed was affecting the way his patients perceived him. It affected how his patients respected his education and authority as a dentist, meaning that some patients doubted his effectiveness and ability in doing his job, or they doubted whether he took his education or job seriously. This was not a good for repeat business, and he definitely wants repeat business.
Dentist friend made the mistake of thinking that there is only one way to dress in order to be himself. But even though he is easy going, he's also a dedicated and competent dentist. By dressing in a way that immediately conveyed his dedication and competency in immediately understandable ways, he wasn't abandoning who he was, he was simply showing a different part of who he was. (There are ways that you can show different parts of who you are through the gamete of formality, it's called style, but it's another topic for another time.)
The point is that your clothing decisions, whether fair or not, say something about you. And people will judge and treat you accordingly. So you can either sulk about it and wear your cargo shorts everywhere and exclaim "why don't people just accept me for who I am? My shorts don't affect my ability to negotiate contracts/program this computer/ride my hog/support you at your wedding." Or you can think about what you're saying with your clothes and control it to your purpose and benefit.