I stood before the desk of an elegantly coiffed and dressed administrative assistant and told her my name. My sister had instructed me to wear a shirt, tie, Sunday pants and shined shoes, and to say very little. The woman looked me up and down like a drill sergeant conducting an inspection, lip curled in distaste. But she finally nodded and handed me papers to fill out. The bank called me back for a second interview a few weeks later, but I’d secured another summer job days before. I felt some satisfaction after I hung up: I wouldn’t have to spend the next four months wearing ties and sweating as I ran errands for that unpleasant lady.
I applied the year before at a construction company, and wore jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt when I entered the employment office. A lady at the desk surveyed my appearance: my clothes suited the job, but my 150 lbs., 6’2″ frame did not. She gave me a look of pity and told me to apply elsewhere. I had done contracting work for my Dad, had decent strength and good stamina, but my muscles didn’t meet her expectations. I should have pumped iron directly before walking in the door.
Churches have dress codes too. I attended a Quaker meeting for years, and the rules for men were ill-defined. Some wore suits, others t-shirts, sandals and khakis. Shorts were accepted. Colors other than beige, brown, gray and black seldom brightened the room, however. Women usually adhered to the fashion guidelines of thrift store chic: anything was okay as long as it bagged at essential areas and lagged ten years behind current styles.
I now attend a Presbyterian church, and the women mostly wear neatly pressed dresses running down to their knee caps. Solid pastel colors and discrete floral patterns predominate. Men wear suits, ties, dress pants. I recently bought a pair of beige canvas shoes after getting new sneakers. My old ones were black and could marginally pass inspection, but the new running shoes sport fluorescent blue trim unsuitable to the tone of the gathering. I didn’t want to stand out as a gaudy bird whenever I crossed my legs at our Sunday school circle.
When I teach art classes I dress according to the collective attitude of the students. Some classes require the art dude uniform. I show up in paint stained pants and old shirts to assure them that I’m one of them, the avant garde, the cultural iconoclasts. I leave a little stubble and don’t bother to trim my beard carefully. Other classes doubt my credentials, and I wear a more formal ensemble and talk in distant, I-know-my-stuff tones. Some groups are easily intimidated when I teach the fundamentals. Direct statements, even if meant to inform and help them improve their drawings, are taken as harsh criticism. In that case, I wear Hawaiian shirts or bow ties. Fluorescent blue shirts with palm tree patterns overwhelm only a few. No one feels threatened by a man wearing a bow tie.
I used to think that Thoreau’s advice, to never accept a job if it required a new set of clothes, was a good caution against hypocrisy and conformity. Now I don’t care all that much, and dress for physical and emotional comfort. Clothes are just a set of signals that introduce me to others. By dressing the part, I acknowledge the terms of a social situation and show respect.
But sometimes I feel a bit contrary. On the first day of a painting class, I wore a floral bow tie and a shirt patterned with blue, black, white, red and green. I laid demonstration paintings on a stage in the middle of the studio. I discussed the syllabus, showed materials, and pointed out the important qualities of the examples spread before the students. I told them that the class would emphasize color theory. “A limited palette,” I said, “let’s you create harmonies even between colors that normally clash.” They looked back and forth from my clothes to the restrained demonstration paintings. Their confusion was evident. I thought, “These are the moments that make teaching worthwhile.”