Why I Wear What I Do

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.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Richard Kadrey

Short intro: Richard Kadrey is one of my favorite contemporary dark fantasy authors. Dead Set, his newest book, is excellent. It’s also a little bit different than some of his other work, for a couple of reasons. Those reasons? Kadrey explains below.


Dead Set is a new kind of book for me. I’ve never written a young adult novel before and before a friend pointed me to authors like Holly Black, my memory of what passed for young adult when I was a kid was something kind of soft and not very sophisticated. Then I read some of the good modern stuff—like Black’s Tithe and some of Neil Gaiman’s work–and it was a reading kick to the head. As I waded into the dark magic, tough situations, and screwed up families I thought that I could have a good time exploring this new territory, so I took the plunge.

There’s another reason I wanted to try Dead Set, too. I write a lot about guys. Guys with power and attitude. My Sandman Slim series is about a magician with vast physical and magical power: James Stark has escaped Hell, come back from the dead (more than once), kicks angels’ asses, and pals around with God and Lucifer. Basically, he’s a guy with a lot going for him. A young adult book seemed like that perfect place to look at a character with little to no power. Up popped Zoe, a sixteen-year-old girl with a recently dead father, little money, and a mother who, like Zoe, is finding her way back from tragedy. Sixteen seemed like the perfect age for my protagonist. A fascinating, frustrating time where you have so many adult responsibilities, but so little adult power.

Dead Set was also a place to explore new mythologies. Over six books, Sandman Slim has developed enough backstory and mythological complexities that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of who I’d killed and who was merely maimed. I needed breakdowns of the magical beings in James Stark’s world. Who his friends and enemies are. Where has he been and what did he find there? Keeping these things straight is sometimes fun, but Sandman Slim’s world, however complicated, is just one world. I wanted to write about other places. Writing Zoe’s story let me do that.

Zoe’s story starts simply. In the year since her father’s death, her life has fallen apart. The insurance money didn’t come through, so she and her mother lost their nice home in the suburbs and had to move into a crappy apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Zoe has left all her friends behind and has to attend a new school where she doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t fit in. Worst of all, her dreams have become haunted.

Before the move, Zoe’s dreams were the one place she felt happy and safe, playing like kids behind her family’s old house with Valentine, her “dream brother.” There, she could forget about her screwed up life for a while. Lately though, the black dogs have appeared, following her through empty streets of her dreams.

While cutting school one day, Zoe wanders into a used record store. Music and old punk bands had always been a big part of her family’s life and when she sees the shop, she can’t help but go in. Inside, she discovers a secret room in the back, one most people can’t find. There, the records are unlabeled and when Zoe holds one up to the light it seems to have a beating heart in the center, with veins and arteries branching away. Emmett, the store owner, explains to her that these records don’t hold music, but human souls—her father’s soul among them. Zoe can have the record and take her father home, if she’ll pay the price. Ultimately, the price forces her to visit a dark city where the dead are trapped forever, unable to go forward or back. She wants to save her father, but quickly realizes she also has to save herself. My editor and I have described the book as a punk Wizard of Oz with dead people instead of munchkins.

As some of you might have guessed, I’m not young and I’m not a woman, so… how did I write the book from a young woman’s point of view? I started my writing career as a journalist, which means I know how to research. I approached writing Zoe the way I would any subject I wanted to know more about: I read up on the subject and most importantly, I went to the experts. Women. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by smart women. My wife is my first reader. My editor, agent, and publicist are all women. I went to friend’s daughters and to young women I’d gone to for book advice while writing Sandman Slim (I don’t keep up with anime the way I used to. It’s nice to know people who do!).

That’s the basic story behind Dead Set. I wanted to try something different and I wanted to get my work in front of new eyes. I wanted to explore new worlds and I wanted to write something that both young adult and older readers could enjoy. And I wanted to find out if Zoe took the shadow man’s offer and what she did with it.

Everyone is sixteen once, both strong and weak, adult and child, focused and confused. I remember all those things. Some parts of Zoe weren’t hard to write at all. The lost family that’s trying to find its way back to shore. The scars that everyone gets in life: the ones you get from exploring the edges of what you know, plus the deeper ones you pick up in the places you know you shouldn’t go but can’t resist. I wanted to look at all those things again and I wanted to do it with someone as smart and resourceful as Zoe.

The land of the dead is a hard place to get to and even harder to come back from. Zoe is frequently in over her head, but we’re all over our heads more times than we’d like to admit. It’s what you do there and how you fight your way back that defines you as a person. And ultimately, that’s Zoe’s story.


Dead Set: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Exit mobile version