Question 131 of 365: Am I dressing for the job that I want?

Gentleman wearing bowler hat and three-piece suit
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For an entire year, I wore only sports jackets and ties to work. No matter how hot and no matter how what day of the week, I wore a self-imposed uniform. Better yet, I had a total of three sports jackets to cycle through. A green checkered pattern (without leather elbow pads), a classic black, and one with a blue texture. I wore these to command some respect with my 7th and 8th graders, whom I looked a bit too much like for my taste. I had 10 shirts, at most, to work with and about the same number of ties. If someone was going to make a chart of all of the combinations I went through during that year, I think that they probably only would have come up with a couple dozen. I had a rhythm to this dress and with that rhythm came an expectation for myself to improve my status. It cued me to the idea that I was not merely a teacher, but that I was a professional. I had some pride in what I was doing and wanted to continue with this time-honored position.

And yet, I stopped. I don’t still wear that uniform, and yet I do not feel any less pride in my work. I do not feel as though I am less serious about creating change or affecting lives with ideas. Somehow, wearing blue jeans hasn’t stopped me. I had always heard that you should dress for the job that you want and not the job that you have. Yet, this trite expression of optimism has never made me feel anything other than depressed, even as I was adhering to its rule of law. The rigid adherence to this standard keeps the emphasis on our physical presence rather than our accomplishments and it makes it so we are excluding a huge portion of the population whose access to business clothes is severely lacking. And yet for all of the signs to a more casual working environment (including my own progression on the matter), the expectation is still a suit and tie. And I still oblige this obligation much of the time. I bow to tradition and to peer pressure.

Tonight is no exception.

Tonight I was planning on going out to a business function to shake some hands. I was planning on wearing a nice shirt and some slacks (slacks is the preferred way of addressing one’s pants), preferably something comfortable enough to not worry about how I looked. And yet, I did worry. I started worrying this morning. I worried so much that I went out and borrowed a nice tie (nicer than the ones I keep in my closet, I will admit) and I purchased a sports coat. The whole time I was in the store trying on the coats, I was thinking that it was ridiculous that I was letting such a maxim dictate what I should wear.

I’m an unconventional fellow, interested in unconventional things (or so I tell myself). I had Mini business cards printed instead of the normal size. I put my twitter account info on them, even. I’m hip. I’m edgy. But, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I would be labeled instantly as someone not worthy of a conversation for wearing anything except for the required uniform. More than that, I know that if I showed up the way I had planned this morning, I would have lacked the confidence to have some of the deep conversations I am looking forward to. I’m not sure how my jacket can inject confidence into a handshake, but I do think that it happens.

Perhaps it is because I have to become someone else in order to talk to people that I don’t know. I have to act like someone who enjoys that sort of thing. Starting up a relationship has always been this way for me. It is as if I have to put up a caricature of myself so that people will not be too frightened off by the immediate lack of experience or presence. Then, I slowly chip away at the caricature and fill in the holes with little bits of authentic self. I think that it is the only way I can not be hurt by the pressure of situations like that.

And maybe that is why I feel the need to dress up the way that I do. Maybe that is why the trite expression makes sense.

Perhaps we are just putting on armor so that we don’t feel so exposed. If we look like the other people in the crowd, we will not be as easily attacked or questioned for belonging. We want to guide the conversations that are about us, and we don’t want them to be about what we are wearing. We want people to see us across the room and talk about our successes and virtues rather than immediately see what could be construed as flaws.

So, in that sense, I am dressing for the job I want. I want the job of being in a relationship with other people who share my passions. And, the only way for me to do that right now is to show them that I am relationship material. Even if it means suckering them in with homogeneity and then asking if it is okay to put on something more comfortable. Once that bit of trust has been established, casual intercourse can transpire. I just hope that my conversation doesn’t get too promiscuous.

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  1. O'boy where to start…
    When I first started teaching…
    Actually I should start by saying my preferred uniform would be a t-shirt, shorts, and barefeet. I would have no problem teaching dressed like that!
    So…when I first started teaching I felt the need to wear a dress shirt, tie, pants (not as cool as you, I only had pants) and shoes. I dressed like that for ten years. Partly because in my school the kids never saw someone dressed like that they they respected, so I felt the need to be a bit different.
    When I changed schools and was given an oven of a class, I sweat through the dress shirts and ties and changed to a simple button down shirt. Still, not me. Last year I started sneaking in jeans once a week, sneakers all the time, and now I am up to about three times a week in jeans and sneaks. When I wear something other than the jeans I feel as though I am falsely representing myself in front of the kids, I might as well be wearing a mask and pretending to be someone else.
    (I will pause here for a second to point out that ironing clothes is the biggest waste of time)
    I feel as though we are suppose to building these Utopian classes where it is what is inside that matters, yet we all feel the need for some kind of uniform.
    People have said that jeans are not “professional.” Am I not teaching future mechanics, electricians, and carpenters? Somehow I am only dressing professional if I dress like certain professions…
    Someone on my last post left a comment:
    ” I love to see a round peg begin to realize that they can express themselves openly rather than simply perpetuating their social persona they have adopted to survive an intense social system. “
    Makes me think about what you wrote 😉

    So next conference we will wear matching t-shirts right?
    http://www.northernsun.com/n/s/Be-Yourself-Bamb

  2. I'm glad that you found this to resonate with your experience as well.
    It looks like I probably will need to up the ante. The pants I brought
    weren't good enough for the event I went to. Professionalism should
    not be dictated by dress.

    I'm all for matching t-shirts. I'm actually thinking of making up
    bumber stickers that say “School.” or “School is everywhere.” and
    passing them out at ISTE. Will you be there?

  3. jacquelinecahill

    I think there is an extremely fine balance with breaking through effectively. I can understand both of your stances…I'm comfy in tennis shoes and heels (well in my skin comfy not necessarily comfortable in heels…ha ha). However, I don't fit in with my words…the sense that I'm much more direct and rough around then edges than most women who are considered professionals…I had to learn to soften it until people knew me and I could be a little more like me…still always careful at work though. I felt for a long time I wasn't being true to myself and living a life I didn't want until I realized what I wanted actually came much faster…and I could be more me with time and relationships.

    Like Paul though, I have taught a number of students who wanted to be mechanics…long story short (but with a major point)…one of my kiddos I was having a hell of a time breaking through to…his shell was so hard from such a rough life…I always tapped into what lit up a student's spirit as long as it was legal. So, with this specific kiddo who loved fixing cars more than anything I set up a behavior point system earning him the right for a day to overhaul an engine at the high school mechanic shop and I would be his assistant. When I brought this up to him, it was the first time I saw any sign of light in his eyes. Of course this was a lot of red tape to cut through, which takes a lot of time and an unbelievable amount of patience (aka hard time for me to watch my words and follow all the rules). Everything was approved and he earned his day. So, I wore my cozies that could get greasy and met him at the auto shop. He was excited to be there…first time I ever saw him smile…and he excelled (pretty sure I was the worst assistant ever but I gave it my all). In the end, he told me, “thanks for wearing your grubby clothes, Ms Cahill, so you could really get your hands dirty.” So, yes I think clothes can open all types of doors…they are the first impression…followed with your non-verbals…he knew I meant business as being his assistant when I showed up in clothes he'd never seen me in.

    I think where Paul is and who his audience is he is much better wearing casual clothes. I think where you are, Ben, and where I think you want to go it is best if you dress the same as others…for now. It is just a matter of time when you will be rich and famous, and then you can show up in your pjs or swimming trunks and the room will be full of people who are dying with anticipation to hear what you say. I think you are playing your cards well, Ben, with being true to yourself and edgy in less distinct areas yet more important aka your business cards…dressing within the acceptable window makes you approachable to others and tells bosses you are capable of following rules…just awhile longer. 🙂

  4. I love this story. It is one of the best ones that I have heard about
    a student in a while. It sounds like the kinds of stuff you read about
    in books during your teacher education programs. It is the kind of
    breakthrough that only comes from really trying to meet a student
    where they are.

    Playing your cards is an interesting metaphor because I wonder what
    cards this kid was delt, or what I have been delta as well. Holding
    cards close to our chest is perhaps the only way that we can get
    through to others, but perhaps it is when play fast and loose with our
    winnings that we end up with the greatest gains (or losses). I just
    feel as though there is a mentality of elitism that happens when
    cufflinks are involved.

    Now, I am no stranger to elitism. I have portrayed it more than once
    with others who don't believe in self-reflection or collaboration.
    But, it isn't a class or educational issue, whereas I feel as though
    it is for other people. When we are basing our inclusions or
    exclusions upon clothing or knowledge rather than the humanity and
    expression that everyone has within them, it becomes a misguided
    display of back-patting.

  5. jacquelinecahill

    I completely agree and support your last statement in your reply…if it becomes that and wearing different clothes will be the door that opens up equitable respect in a misguided arena…wear whatever it is that needs to be worn!

  6. eclepic

    'Clothes make the man' – an even creepier phrase. I just had a conversation with an Indian-American student at my Ivy League institution (mentioned only because it emphasizes an atmosphere of pretension) about whether or not she will wear some very Indian clothing in the Fall and if that will be 'ok'. As we talked we told stories about what kinds of clothes we as women wear in different environments to cue certain kinds of attention. Clothes, like other non-verbals, do seem to be a communication of what kind of relationship one wants to invite – what parts of my identity am I hoping you'll notice and interact with? (this range of explicit expression seems a bit broader in women's fashion than men's…). In the end, we said that her comfort with the Indian portion of her Indian-American identity had become such that it would be very timely for the change in attire.

    My problem seems to be that in this age of immediacy I have equated authenticity with entirety – so I am dissatisfied when the full nature and scope of my identity has not be articulated at the outset of any kind of relationship. Big job for clothes, big job for first, second or even third impressions. As the 'what' of your 'who' becomes clearer – the 'how fast' and 'how' of communicating that 'what' must inevitably get easier. Someone older than 27 please confirm ;c)

  7. Yeah… but all I want to do is tell stories right now.

    There has got to be an easier way of telling stories. That's the only
    way that anyone will start to find out who I am or start to think
    through whether they want to consort with me. I feel as though
    authenticity is in the stories and entirety is impossible. Quite
    frankly, there is only one person who has ever come close to knowing
    me completely. And I don't need people to know me that well; I just
    need them to be interested enough to listen to a few stories.

    That is one of the reasons why I am writing this book now. If I can
    write down enough of who I am and what my stories are, perhaps someone
    out there will read to the end of it and make the estimation about if
    it is worth the rest of the effort to work with me. This is the way
    that I am figuring out just how much clothing I need to wear in order
    to sound the way I want. I am testing out different suits through
    these posts, and some are going well, and some are causing me to be a
    wallflower.

    I don't know if I need someone who is older to clarify that it gets
    easier, I just need to know that I will at some point figure out how
    to tell a better story with my clothing, with my business card, with
    my blog, with my haircut, with my presentations, and with every other
    piece of social sharing I have used to reveal myself to the world.

  8. Yeah… but all I want to do is tell stories right now.rnrnThere has got to be an easier way of telling stories. That’s the onlyrnway that anyone will start to find out who I am or start to thinkrnthrough whether they want to consort with me. I feel as thoughrnauthenticity is in the stories and entirety is impossible. Quiternfrankly, there is only one person who has ever come close to knowingrnme completely. And I don’t need people to know me that well; I justrnneed them to be interested enough to listen to a few stories.rnrnThat is one of the reasons why I am writing this book now. If I canrnwrite down enough of who I am and what my stories are, perhaps someonernout there will read to the end of it and make the estimation about ifrnit is worth the rest of the effort to work with me. This is the wayrnthat I am figuring out just how much clothing I need to wear in orderrnto sound the way I want. I am testing out different suits throughrnthese posts, and some are going well, and some are causing me to be arnwallflower.rnrnI don’t know if I need someone who is older to clarify that it getsrneasier, I just need to know that I will at some point figure out howrnto tell a better story with my clothing, with my business card, withrnmy blog, with my haircut, with my presentations, and with every otherrnpiece of social sharing I have used to reveal myself to the world.

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