My heterosexual life partner recently landed his first well-paying job after completing his second Master’s degree program, suddenly launching him (and myself, by proxy) into the “upper-middle class.” Before this position, this man didn’t pay much attention to what he wore; while he never looked disheveled, his standard attire was an old t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He owned exactly two dress shirts, one polo shirt, and one pair of dress pants.
Last weekend, after getting his first paycheck, he went out and bought a suit jacket that cost $250, a jacket personally fitted for him by a salesperson. His mother bought him some shirts from American Eagle, and (when I am not stealing one of these ultra-comfortable shirts) his standard weekend attire now consists of one of these, jeans, and brown dress shoes. Whereas I used to get teased for changing outfits more than once in the morning before making a decision, I now see my boyfriend waking up early to iron his clothes, and get asked whether or not two differently-pinstriped articles of clothing “go together, or not.”
This reaction doesn’t seem unusual to me given our Western, American culture, but it does strike me as interesting. While many jobs have attire-restrictions for safety or uniformity-related reasons, there are plenty policies based purely on reasons of aesthetics. I have myself gone through different wardrobe changes in connection to different places of employment, but I thought that this was a phenomenon that generally affected female-identifying persons and not necessarily anybody else, particularly male-identifying persons. This is because, in my experience, female-identifying persons had much more restrictions and regulations placed on them in both official and unofficial policy. For example, when I worked at a popular retail chain, the list of “non-acceptable” clothing for “men” was limited to, largely, “anything ripped, and dirty tennis shoes.” In contrast, the list for women was much larger and more thorough. We were also told by our store manager that shoes without heels were only okay if they had been bought at the store, or if our feet were too tired to continue on in our heeled shoes. I have also worked full-time in an office environment, which was quite interesting; though the job was with an Internet-based marketing company, wherein we very rarely saw people outside of the company, I was still expected to dress quite well, and my clothes were more scrutinized as I was the largest female-identifying employee. Despite this, my male-identifying counterparts were allowed to wear comfortable clothes, though they occasionally would wear dress shoes with their t-shirts and jeans.
Why is office attire so important? I have been told countless times to “dress for the position that I want.” The implication is, of course, that the better clothes you have, the higher status you have in life. The higher position you have in a company, the “better” you are supposed to dress, in direct correlation with your income level. And yet, in some relaxed companies (usually large, Internet- or technology-based companies, such as Google, Apple, etc.), the executives are allowed to wear whatever they want, as a message of: I have made it and no longer have to adhere to your silly, office policies.
Do “better” dressed people really do a better job? Do they appear more trustworthy? Do they get their pick of a partner? Some findings suggest so. While I don’t trust the research methods of The Men’s Wearhouse’s “Well-Dressed Man Survey” for many reasons, their findings can also be supported by the plethora of “How to Dress” articles aimed at all genders and sexes that can be found via simple Google searches. Everybody from About.com to Forbes has put in their two cents regarding clothes in the workplace, and the results are clear: people tend to like other people better when they are better-dressed. This could be for a variety of reasons; much of the social cues humans and other animals give each other are non-verbal, including appearance, and also Western, American society in the twenty-first century has conditioned itself to be psychologically more attracted to people who put more time and energy into keeping up their appearance according to social standards, even within social subcultures.
But what are the drawbacks to this? The weight-related issues are clear. For every weight-loss clinic, for every lap-band procedure, for every BMI-believer, there is somebody with low-self esteem tied to their appearance that may end up hurting themselves. The socio-economic implications are clear: those who can’t afford to dress well for an interview won’t get a job, and won’t earn the chance to make enough money to dress well. The sex- and gender-issues are clear: for a man, your status as successful at work is dependent on your appearance; for a woman, your status of acceptance and continued employment is dependent on your appearance; for anybody who does not fit into “man” or “woman,” “male” or “female,” you don’t exist, or you probably don’t have a “good” job, anyway.
Personally, I know that my heterosexual life partner is just as good-looking and successful wearing his “Cobra Kai” t-shirt as he is in his $250 suit jacket. I know that I am just as qualified and hard-working with short, pink hair and tattoos as with long, “natural” colored hair and my tattoos covered up. Maybe one day, the Western, American generic workplace will see this as well, and let people make their own choices regarding how they would like to dress while they complete their job. Until then, I will continue to help my boyfriend iron his pants, but I will never stop vocally and loudly questioning the status quo.