Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Clothes We Wear

Are we recognized for who we are by the clothes we wear? Just like a priest is recognizable by his collar, or a policeman by his uniform, or a scientist by his lab jacket, we also, sometimes without much thought, put on a daily uniform that tells the world who we are.

And sometimes this can go horribly awry. A few examples:
Once when my children were little, I walked into church with the back of my skirt stuck up so that I flashed my whole pantyhose and panties clad bottom to the congregation. Some kind woman took my arm and hurried me into the bathroom. Turns out, I must have sat on a half-eaten tootsie-pop.
Fast forward about ten years and I’m hurrying to the high school for back to school night. There’s one teacher that I really needed to speak with. I didn’t have time for dinner so I grabbed an Almond Joy candy bar from someone’s Halloween bag and I eat it on the way. Turns out, I only ate half. The other half had fallen into my lap and melted between thighs, staining my white pants. Because the high school was about twenty minutes from our house, I couldn’t go home to change. But I also wasn’t about to walk around the school with a brown stain on the crotch of my pants, so I hurried into the nearby mall, prayed I wouldn’t see anyone I knew, and bought the first thing I could find.
Last example, once when my husband had a business boondoggle in San Francisco, we decided to drive. Half way through the eight hour trip, we stopped for lunch and ate it at a park. I took off my shoes…(Do I really need to finish this story?) It ends with me having to walk into a very expensive hotel barefoot.

One of the few lectures I attended and enjoyed with my husband when he was in graduate school was given by a professor of organizational behavior on “dress for success--” a popular buzz-phrase in the 1980s. (Remember power ties?) He said that the reason the business world wears dark boring suits is so that nothing in their appearance would detract from their ideas. What you wear should never call attention from what you have to say. Your shoes should never receive more admiration than your thoughts.

When Larry worked in Midtown New York, we lived in the commuter town, Darien, Ct. A hefty portion of the town’s population daily commuted to the city. We lived about two blocks from the train station and Larry walked to and from the station, but sometimes he would run. Not because he was late, but because he was cold and running was much faster than walking. After a while, he learned to stop and walk if he saw a car approaching because, inevitably, the driver of the car would assume he was late for his train and stop and offer him a ride. Since he is unsocial by nature, this embarrassed him. Darien is a beautiful community—we had wonderful neighbors there, but I wondered if Larry had replaced his suit, tie and brief case for jeans, a corduroy jacket and a backpack—would the cars of Darien have stopped and offered him a ride? No, probably not. Right or wrong, assumptions are made by the clothes we wear.
New York City investment bankers follow a strict uniform code. The earlier the commute, the stricter the code. In the fall—raincoats--and then one late autumn day wool overcoats replace the raincoats…their attire is far more predictable than the stock markets. For a good reason, remember the advice of the organizational behavior professor--never let your appearance detract from what you have to say. Don’t try to hide behind your clothes.

In New York City, I saw women wearing tea length fur coats to the Macy Day Thanksgiving parade. I have never seen women wearing fur to the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. Again, for a variety of good reasons, but the overriding reason, the one I want to talk about, is that a fur coat in California would be as out of place as a pair of flip-flops on the stock exchange floor.

If you’re a den mother, wear the lemon yellow shirt with pride. If you’re a yogi, wear your leotard. It’s worth the cost—whatever that is--to let the world know who you are, what your purpose is, and that you need to be taken seriously, because your daily work is seriously important.

Fortunately, for me, I write novels. This means that I get to spend the day in fuzzy pajamas. On the days I wear clothes, I can slouch in pants with holes in the knees and sweaters that grow fuzz balls, but, every once in awhile, I need to look like a respectable, contributing member of society. Sometimes, although usually not, I want to be taken seriously and when I do—I dust off my best clothes and put them on. And although the suit doesn’t change who I am inside and underneath, I can move and act with confidence, knowing that the skirt won’t slip and show my white belly, or that the blouse won’t shift and expose my bra strap. Well cut clothes can do that for you and when you need them, it’s nice to know you have them at the ready. I’ve heard it said that fashion is all about what doesn’t itch, but sometimes, every once in a while, it’s also about looking your best so that you can share your most brilliant ideas without worrying about your outward appearance—which should never outshine who you are on the inside.

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