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.