The Way You Wear Your Hat

Linda Lou Burton posting from Little Rock, Arkansas – Brooks Brothers bankrupt? It seems to be true. Demand for suits has plummeted with our newly enforced “work-from-home” lifestyle, though the trend was already in place. Comfort-in-the-workplace began taking priority in the high-tech industry several years back.

And why not? Why do we wear the clothes that we wear in the first place? Back in 1975, John T Molloy came out with a book called Dress for Success. All about the effect clothing has on a person’s success in life, it gave birth to the concept of “power dressing.” “Never wear a brown suit,” Molloy advised, “it makes you look weak. Stick to grays and blues, dark.”

Dress codes were in place for years in most western countries, carefully spelled out in employee handbooks. Often this depended on the amount of interaction an employee had with customers, but not always. One of my sons began working for an insurance company in the 80s; on the phone all day and never in sight of anyone other than his co-workers. He was expected to wear a tie, and the tie could only be a certain color, and of a certain design. Dark pants, white or pastel shirts, and no tennis shoes, only leather, neatly polished. His son now works for that same company, and they have given up on dress codes. Certainly in the last few months, as he does his job from home, the modus operandi of millions since March.

How is enforced work from home affecting attitudes about the importance of what we wear, and how we look? Profoundly, it appears. Looking good “on the top” works for many – great earrings and a necklace that pops look snazzy and professional during on-line team meetings; the comfy pajama bottoms are never seen. The guys, it seems, are going for beards. One grandson, a software engineer with Amazon in Seattle, already sported a neatly trimmed dark beard; it fit well with the workplace culture there and fits equally well now for those team meetings from home. Another grandson, a chemical engineer with Scripps in Florida, sent me his “new beard” picture today. “It came out red,” he said, “and it’s hot under my mask, but it makes me feel different.” Tee shirts and shorts make up the rest of the outfit; a lab coat overlay when he goes into the building to set up daily tests, masked up, with a little red around the edge. And the work gets done.

People don’t NEED so many clothes now. With nowhere to go, there is no reason to change outfits so often. From school kids to the workforce, to the retired (like me), casual attire is fast becoming the norm because it is comfortable, less expensive, and easy to care for.

Cavemen wore funny-looking animal skins for warmth, we assume, but perhaps it was a hunter’s boast. Was that the beginning of “What I wear tells you who I am?” If you put a 15th-century king and a lowly peasant on “What’s My Line?” would the royal robes and rough-woven country attire give it away before they even spoke a word? Going with this notion, BRANDING became a big-time industry, as we were persuaded that we’d be more successful if we avoided wearing brown, as Molloy said; or more respected if we had the proper logo on our shirt. But even our pets can see through that pretense. “A dog can destroy a Jimmy Choo shoe just as fast as last year’s worn-out loafers,” a friend recently lamented.

Jobs lost and entire industries in trouble are a heartbreaking effect of the worldwide pandemic swirling around our heads. But perhaps a breather from “dressing up” will lead to a rethinking of priorities. For the industries – how can we use the resources we have to respond to what people actually need? For the people – that’s us – honest choices about what allows us to give the world the best we’ve got.

No matter what we wear.