The Trials of Sartorial Splendor

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.

White Out

Three white t-shirts hanging on a clothesline against a blue sky.

There’s something about crisp whites. Maybe a button down, or towels and wash cloths. Could be a pair of pants with a knife sharp crease, or a duvet cover imitating a cumulus cloud floating above a sky-bed.

Crispness isn’t totally required. I mean nobody likes crisp socks, but warm, fluffed, super bleached socks from the dryer? That can produce an actual swoon. We still mentally categorize those delicious socks with crisp whites, because they’re somehow part of the same awesome experience.

Even the mere invocation of crisp whites works. There are  candles and air fresheners and sprays with names like Clean Linen, Snuggle Fresh Linen, Crisp Breeze, Linen & Sky and Laundry Line Clean Cotton. They actually don’t smell like anything, but people buy them. No. Literally, they have no scent. No flower. No spice. No exotic oil. No grass. Seriously, no aroma. Yet the idea of crisp whites fills our nostrils with, uhm. I don’t know. Crispness? Eau de crispette?

BONUS! You don’t even need to mention white to get that white crisp fabric feel. When you saw the names of the scents, they didn’t say white. But as you thought about crisp linen and piles of cottons, you knew they were white.

And not just any white. Holy white.

This is the bright white that reflects all the goodness from a Saint’s robes. This is the angelic glow of an infant wrapped in a white gown with white lace embroidery for christening. This is the white you see when you look into the yellow sun and it becomes an almost painful white as you’re forced to look away, blinded by that deity star. Then you can’t see anything at all for a few minutes. You push through that dark brown-black as payment for seeing god.

Sadly, this white in clothing and linens doesn’t last. It is ephemeral. That tablecloth that grounded last Christmas’ crown roast sports not only physical memories of Pinot Noir but also the grease shadow remnants of that delectable, fat-rich gravy. It doesn’t wash out. It doesn’t bleach out. It doesn’t Shout® out. And therefore, the cloth is much less white.

The socks that were white and fluffy as a new kitten grew grayed and frayed like Grumpy Cat over a sadly short number of washings. That summer stock white skirt? The one carefully ironed after spraying with Magic Sizing  so every wrinkle and fold was pressed out to eliminate the shadows that obstructed the pure brightness? A poorly planned month ruined that sweet skirt. And a set of sheets, too.

I quit white. It was full of disappointment and regret. Printed sheets, dark towels and sensible sartorial civvies became my norm. I couldn’t fully resist the splendor of crisp white, but it was a disposable purchase from the final sale rack, easily replaced after it was defaced. My shirt drawer had a pile of cheap white tees in various stages of whiteness and, therefore, proximity to the trash. I would spend no real money for white.

Until.

Until I was so cold. We’d had fifteen days straight of cold spring rain. I was unprepared that day, wearing only a light silk sweater over my cheap white tee. Being only a block from a huge department store meant that I didn’t need to remain cold.

I went into Macy’s and paged through the racks. I pulled two coats off and found a full length mirror for evaluation.  First was the soft pink leather jacket. It fit poorly and had gold zippers. Zippers should be silver. Reject. Then, I tried on a Tommy Hilfiger faux-seersucker trench. The fabric was hard and stiff, like a piece of cardboard. Not crisp but rigid and brittle. The coat had the fit of a 70’s Barbie with a twist and turn waist. Reject.

I felt discouraged as I walked the coats back to their origin. As I hung up the unyielding blue and white stripe, a new option revealed itself to me. It was a very white trench coat. It was, in fact, crisp and virginal white. I didn’t think to reject it. It might have cast a spell on me.

I spied the tag. My size. I walked it to a mirror on a pillar on the other side of the aisle. It was a fine jacket. I popped the long collar up behind my head, a la Transylvanian. It looked even better. It was marked down eighty-percent.

I walked to the cash register and held out my left arm, the one with the tag. I wasn’t taking the jacket off. I was wearing it out. It was mine. It was amazingly and blindingly white. It would be stained. It would be ruined. It would not stay bright. I did not care. These were all risks that I would accept for that whitest of white and crispest of crisps coat.

As I walked out of the store, I felt like everyone was looking at me. And they were. The guard at store exit turned and nodded with approval. Walking past the food trucks more heads turned and nodded. Passing the hotel, the red cap stopped me. He had to tell me how fine my jacket was.

I know I have to keep it shiny and white. I’m ready for that risk. I’m thinking about buying white sheets. Crisp and white and cottony soft. I’m sinking happily into that thought. Ahhhh.