I didn’t wear a uniform to school when I was a kid. Nonetheless, there were things that we did and did not wear. But, like with many cultural norms, this changed over time. A bit because of shifts in fashion and a bit because of evolving mores.
I wanted to keep up with the changes. I didn’t want to be left behind the other kids. My mother was not as sanguine.
“Doc,” she said, “there are things you wear to school and there are things you wear to play. There’s a reason. You go to school to learn, not to play.”
I disagreed and adjusted my wardrobe. I was shocked to see that I did not get 100% on my spelling test that week. It was the first time. Ever. I went back to wearing my school clothes.
I have often thought about that lesson from decades ago, when I see people going to work wearing what I could only call playclothes. The people that I am referring to are women. In offices. In Washington, D.C. In the summer, they dress like this:
Before you jump all over me and call me an old fashioned upholder of the patriarchy, hear me out.
The Spouse is an excellent negotiator. He bargained for agreements that kept the union brothers and sisters afloat and extended their jurisdictions. The first time the big-shot attorney was coming down from New York, I told The Spouse to get a new suit. He objected. His well-worn suit would serve him well.
I told him that he didn’t need to look less than the man he would sit across from, that it put him on a more equal footing, that someone might notice his hand-me-down-suit. He bought a power tie, too.
Then there was the story I heard about a Cabinet Secretary that was invited to the President’s ranch for a Cabinet retreat. The secretary was not from Texas and was unsure what to wear. He usually wore wingtips. He could not interpret business ranchwear. He sent his assistant to the department store. She returned with three different pairs of boots. The powerful secretary and his most trusted senior staff reviewed the choices so that the Secretary would look like he belonged.
You NEVER EVER EVER see a man in an office, in Washington, D.C., dressed like this. Unless it’s the kid of the boss.
It’s not about being free. It’s not about slut-shaming. It’s not about there being a uniform or there not being a uniform.
BECAUSE THERE IS A UNIFORM!! Sorry kids. It’s just how it is.
Men in offices wear a fairly standard uniform of dark suits and button down shirts and ties. The variations can include separates–jackets and pants–but almost always include a tie. Other modifications can be a tan suit, which didn’t go over well for the President, or seersucker suits for the truly affected gentlemen. This is most acceptable for Congressmen from the South. Many many many many men do not like to wear ties. I have heard them express this dislike. Some will carry the dreaded knot in their bag to wrap and tie them at the last minute. This is also followed at the end of the day with an immediate removal of said tie.
Now, the uniform is not uniform. Here in D.C., we are known for our dull sense of conservative fashion. Ties are not removed, even at happy hour. In Silicon Valley, you better not wear a suit. Depending on your industry, it will be different, too. You don’t see someone dressed preppily pouring shots in your favorite dive bar. You don’t see someone who works on the Hill in jeans when Congress is in session.
The uniform is a symbol of your role and of your corporate/job culture. It’s what you wear to signify that you are at work and that you are serious.
So, you want to be taken seriously? Then make sure that what you are wearing does not get more attention than what you are doing. Be neat. Be clean. But dress like your peers.
If you are a woman and you work in a D.C. office, wear your work uniform. It’s not about “covering up,” it’s about looking the part. The Doc is not a fashion blogger and would not be so bold as to provide guidance, but this might help.
Oh, and when you go to the White House, wear shoes. The guys do.