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Dress for Success, Even in Distress

COVID is changing everything about us, including how we dress. What does that mean for our state of being?
September 18, 2020
Dress for Success, Even in Distress
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

COVID-19 is accelerating change in every field of life: from schooling to work habits to how we enjoy our movies, the pandemic has sped up societal disruptions that were out on the horizon by a decade, at least. Then there are our personal habits: how we exercise or date or dine out in the midst of a pandemic. Without market forces bearing down on our own personal choices, we are somewhat adrift. It is perhaps a small thing, but I wonder what it means to get up and get dressed every morning. In a time where there is little or no professional expectation of in-person communication beyond a grainy Zoom call, how does a man dress above his most basic level of comfort?

In normal times, I head off to class in a coat and tie and to church in a suit. But these have not been normal times. It’s hard to bring myself to don a tie for an online class broadcast from my basement guest room, so most days it’s been a dress shirt for the camera but fishing shorts and old boat shoes otherwise. I’ve been to church twice since March, in a shaded parking lot with instructions to “dress comfortably,” which in the Alabama humidity means imitating Bill Murray in Moonrise Kingdom. Whatever these new circumstances are, they are hardly calling forth our best selves.

Without the rituals of work and worship, we are mostly left to ourselves. And when we are left to ourselves, we do what is right in our own eyes. We create our own identities. Most days, I would rather be fishing so, without even thinking about it, that’s how I dress. We become, in other words, exactly what we want to be. But what if what we want to be isn’t a good thing? What if we stand in need of correction and formation?

I talked to my friend Scott Pyburn, owner of Harrison Limited in Mountain Brook, Alabama. Harrison Limited is a small but wonderfully curated menswear retailer with a national reputation, selling brands like Alden, Samuelsohn, Oxxford, and Drake’s. When asked what men are wearing these days, Scott said it’s mostly golf polos and shorts. No one expects anything of men away from the office, and so that’s where they’re naturally inclined. As for the future, Pyburn said it’s all in the hands of corporate culture. Traditionally, tough times and economic downturns bring a renewed seriousness to corporate life. However, that didn’t happen during the Great Recession, even with the Mad Men boomlet that followed. Though many of his customers acknowledge that their business slacks off in conjunction with relaxed modes of dress, the allure of the casual and the comfortable is too seductive. Decline, as they say, is a choice.

A few days after my visit with Scott, I went back to Harrison Limited, this time to speak with Robert Jenson, the tie marker and former creative director for Robert Talbott. With most trade shows and markets closed for the time being, Jensen has been traveling the country and checking in with his best stores. On this day, he was helping a young man and his father pick out tie fabric for the son’s wedding party. After they left, Jensen echoed what Scott said earlier that week. So much of what men do depends ultimately on what is demanded of them; if workplaces do not demand that their employees dress well, they rarely will. In other words, if our institutions will not form us, we’re left to form ourselves—and that often does not work out so well.

Dress codes, ironically, are truly democratizing. In a recent Twitter post, Matt Yglesias argued that we would all be better off if suit-and-tie dress codes made a strong comeback. Amanda Mull responded in dissent at the Atlantic, arguing that dress codes are ultimately oppressive means of reinforcing inequities of class, gender, and race. Derek Guy of Die, Workwear! tried to think through all the various issues of equity that surround dress codes, and he settled on a rather Hayekian point: “Open office spaces still have dress codes—they’re just softly coded as social norms, not hard written into rulebooks.” And given the difficulty of reading social cues and cultural “fits,” perhaps it’s best that offices establish some uniform rules that work for all employees, leaving social cues to the outside world.

Yglesias is correct, and Guy’s analysis is sharp and thoughtful: strong dress codes help level the playing field while serving a pedagogical function. Dress codes teach us to be better; we no longer have any confusion about how we ought to dress as a sign for respect for either an occasion or for other people. Dress codes also demand something of us, in much the same way that work itself is meant to discourage vice and reward virtue, a facet of capitalism understood by everyone from Adam Smith to Dierdre McCloskey. The man or woman who is undisciplined and carefree in appearance is likely to be undisciplined in work. The longer businesses tell themselves they can avoid those demands, the harder the crash when it’s time for real work to be done.

Which brings me back to our current predicament: What do we do when we are not at work? Or when work demands nothing more than logging into a Zoom call? Our work—our vocations—are important, but we are also formed by other, better institutions. We are neighbors, friends, sons and daughters and it is in those relationships that we learn to be our best selves. Capitalism may not demand much of us anymore; our work may allow us to be as free and whimsical as we like. We can still demand more of ourselves, recognizing that the image we give to those around us carries incalculable weight that may last far longer than we do. Cultivated seriousness need not become uncaring stoicism, but we should be serious people, all the same.

It’s probably not the case that every man can have the learned sprezzatura of Sid Mashburn or Brunello Cuccinelli. But like other important virtues—thrift, temperance, patience, diligence—we should try, because to be thoughtful in one’s dress, or in one’s housework or yard work, inevitably entails other virtues. In our own minds, we may never fully cultivate those things that we want to be, but that is due as much to the dark glass through which we view ourselves as much as it is our actual shortcomings. Like it or not, we’re building a world for those who come after us, and every movement away from vice and towards virtue is a step in the right direction.

Matthew Stokes

Matthew Stokes is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. His work has appeared in the Alabama Daily News, the University Bookman, and the Gospel Coalition. Follow him on Twitter: @yellingstopal.