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I had a friend in college who had a dilemma. She was in charge of the placement of students in her progressive non-profit. It was part of a great program where students could earn a real college credit by doing real work for real student orgs.

One of the people my progressive friend interviewed was really excited about the work, had some relevant experience and a lot of energy. The problem? She was wearing a pink, crew neck, shetland sweater monogrammed with her initials and, even if not actually wearing a string of pearls, she sure seemed to be. She was preppy or, at least, she looked it.

We fighters for right derided the fraternities and sororities. They were experiencing a resurgence after a decade of withering at a very progressive campus. Folks working on economic and environmental justice, consumer choice and fairness literally had nothing to do with the Greeks on the hill. We didn’t go to the same parties. Didn’t hang at the same bars. Ate from different troughs. I’m sure that they were in some of our classes, but there was an unspoken demarcation in the classroom. Defined by their uniforms.

So the preppy young woman didn’t belong in our organizations. And my friend, from an eastern boarding school background, was torn. She wondered if Pinkie was worth the risk. I remember looking down at myself. Plaid flannel shirt, worn Levi’s and hiking boots with fat lugged soles. My friend had the same garb. Men and women on the reformist left, all wearing the same uniform.

What we wear, our hair, jewelry and makeup choices, is part of our identity and part of our communities. It can help us find other members of our tribe. And it can also shut us out from others who we don’t recognize, or worse, folks we assume we won’t like.

There was a discussion spawned by a piece that Barnard College president, Debora Spar, wrote in the NYTimes about her tribe,

a particular subset of the city’s elite — the powerful women of a certain age, mostly from the news media and politics. The men wore Hermès ties and as much hair as they could muster. The women were uniformly thin and dressed in short dresses, usually black. A Clinton was spotted and appropriately fawned over…”Every…woman there was over 60 and yet there wasn’t a wrinkle to be found. They all looked great, but so similar!”

Spar writes how she fights with herself to be herself and not fall into the trap of chasing youth through hair colouring, botox, nips and tucks. The discussion part included women who belong to a different tribe, like this 72-year-old retired pediatrician,

I don’t know what circles she moves in, but the wonderful, talented women that I know and work with do NOT go in for tummy tucks and Botox. A few colored their hair for a while (I did not), but most have realized that hair with no gray looks pretty silly on someone with significant wrinkles.

It is clear that Dr. Retired does not know Spar’s circles. She clearly moves in another. And is quick to judge from her spiral of natural hair. I bet some in those NY elite circles would think her frumpy or wonder why a woman of her caliber just let herself go.

Another commenter, Ms. Seventy from near Harvard, actually nails the issue, albeit backwards and inadvertently.

Ms. Spar’s is a problem, perhaps, for folks who go to white wine kiss-kiss parties. For many of the rest of us, age brings a welcome opportunity to opt out of the youth-oriented, body-perfection vision of beauty. When I go to the theater in Santa Monica, Calif., I’m the only woman of my age with gray hair. In Cambridge, Mass., at 70, I look pretty much like the rest of my age mates.

Yes, Ms. Seventy, you are correct. As you note, there are different tribes and different standards. But then you go and get all judgey, too. Lemme ask you this, why do you think that looking the way that YOU want to look is better than how your buddies in Santa Monica or Spar’s elite NYC colleagues want to look?

It’s just different.  Go ahead, wear your uniform with pride, but don’t deride the other team’s.

And for those of you who got this far and were wondering, whatever happened to Pinkie? My smart friend selected her. Pinkie turned out to be a most excellent contributor to the cause and a recruiter for others in her home tribe. She taught us all. A lot.

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.