This very interesting essay on the financial choices of the poor got me thinking about what I wear and why I wear it. Which caused me to haul out the camera and take a picture of what I was wearing today. Today, specifically, I am wearing the following:
A blue polo shirt, which I got at JC Penney. It’s the house brand polo, and I think it cost me $20 or thereabouts;
A pair of Levi’s 505 Regular Fit Jeans, which cost around $40;
Fruit of the Loom underwear, not from the Breaking Bad collection, which I think are like $15 for five;
No shoes and socks at the moment, but if I were wearing them, they would be standard athletic socks ($10 for 10 pair) and the casual brown shoes I bought at Sears about a month ago for about $60.
And that’s it, unless you include the wedding ring; as a rule I don’t usually wear other jewelry or accessories.
What I am wearing today is generally representative of what I wear on any day, both for work (writing and also making appearances) and for just existing. Occasionally I will swap out the polo for a henley or a t-shirt (if I am at a convention and/or not planning to leave my house that day the latter is more likely), but the Levi’s tend to be a staple, and I tend to wear jeans for more than any other type of trouser. I do have suits and other more formal clothes, but I wear them rarely.
Why do I wear what I do? There are several reasons.
1. I am by no stretch of the imagination a clothes horse, nor do clothes really interest or engage me beyond the most cursory way. So I tend to buy clothes that are basic, non-flashy, easy to find and replace and, to a certain extent, status-neutral (which actually means “generically North American middle-class”).
2. With that said, I dislike being a billboard for clothesmakers, which means when it comes to shirts in particular, I actively avoid clothes with brand identifiers on them. This tends to direct me toward house brands, which also have the advantage of generally being cheaper.
3. With that said, I do have one strong brand preference: Levi’s. This is entirely due to early childhood brand indoctrination, since in the world of late-70s, early-80s Southern California elementary and middle schools, there was a definite hierarchy of jeans, which went: Levi’s, Lee, Wrangler and everything else (hot tip: Don’t get caught dead in Tuffskins) (There were designer jeans too, but those were for girls, and there was an entirely different hierarchy there).
As an adult, I recognize this brand identification is largely garbage, but at the same time I still can’t bring myself to put on a pair of Lee or Wrangler jeans. So well done, Levi’s marketers.
4. This get-up has been the basic male uniform for every job I’ve had as an adult: Journalist in the early 90s, AOL minion in the mid-90s, and freelance writer/author from 1998 onward. Additionally, in the business circles I currently frequent — publishing, tech and film/TV — the jeans-and-polo look works just fine, especially because in each case there I am identified as a “creative,” and creatives are given credit if they show up in clothing without obvious food stains on them.
There is a whole discussion to be had here about why “casual” is the standard uniform for all these industries (short form: it’s intentional sartorial messaging from these industries that they are status-less meritocracies concerned only about contribution, not class or other social hierarchies — which, incidentally, is contemptible nonsense) but I will avoid going too much into detail about that at the moment and simply note that since it works for my own clothing choices, I’m happy it’s there.
5. Indeed, because this is the basic uniform for a middle-class male and several high-value industries have adopted it as a standard look, short of events where formal business wear is explicitly requested or expected, as a middle-aged, generally non-skeevy-looking white dude, this look it gains me entry to almost everywhere I want or need to go. Conversely, almost anywhere I am, no one would argue that I didn’t have a right to be there.
I know this is true because this is my experience in the world. I go to meetings in this get-up and am taken seriously; I go out to meals in this get up and get a table. If being more dressed up is expected, I will do so; clothes are not my thing but I know enough to dress well when I have to. But on a day-to-day basis, this look, coupled with society’s baseline assumptions when it comes to race/gender/class, works for me I’d say 95% of the time.
6. And that other 5% of the time? Well, here’s the thing with that: I don’t have to care what people think — which is to say that other people’s negative social judgment of me based on appearance is almost entirely immaterial to how I get to live my life. This is also due to race/gender/class signaling; some of it is also due to my personal situation and me being who I am as a person.
Now, as it happens, I am interested in when people look me up and down, take in the sartorial gestalt, and make choices about how to respond to me based on it. I think it’s fascinating, and frequently amusing, and sometimes I have fun playing with it. This is particularly the case when, from time to time, I go out looking like a slob — unshaven, hair askew to varying degrees, wearing a some crappy t-shirt — and lose the advantages of the “middle class casual” look.
But it’s well worth noting that the reason I find it interesting and amusing is that by and large it doesn’t have any real negative effect on me. My systematic and personal advantages mean that nearly all disadvantages posed by someone judging me on my appearance are temporary and light. This is also why I find it amusing to post deeply unflattering pictures of myself online (see the one to the right as an example); I don’t have to worry about the negative side-effects of doing so. People who actually are judged on their appearance, and for whom that judgment will have a material effect on their life, don’t have the same luxury to be unconcerned as I do. What’s interesting and amusing to me is a matter of stress and anxiety for others.
A much shorter version of all the above is that I can put on $120 worth of clothes and shoes and be taken seriously almost anywhere I might want to go. So that’s what I do. Not everyone gets to do it. These facts are worth thinking about.