We Are What We Wear
It all began with Adam and Eve. Once Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they entered a state of mortality where they would someday begin to show signs of aging and their once perfect bodies would begin to sag. Knowing this, God told them that being naked was not good, and he gave them fig leaves to wear. As the aging process progressed and skin began to sag, people began to cover more than the original fig leaves covered, and eventually people were wearing robes covering their entire bodies. Methuselah lived to be over 900 years old. He must have had some serious sagging by that age. It makes me wonder: If we all had perfect bodies, would we wear clothes?
There are a few people who look good without clothes, but the majority of us have body parts we are at least a little self-conscious of, and we want to cover up. If you have ever been to a place where clothing is not required, or even discouraged, such as a nude beach, you quickly realize that laws requiring clothing are not enacted to protect the individual in question, but to protect the other people who would have to look at that person. Some things you see there are disgusting. No one wants to admit they have imperfections. Those of us who either have nothing to hide or don’t care what people are forced to look at are in the minority. The majority rules and society has adopted customs that require we all wear clothing of some sort.
In defense of clothing, I must say that clothing offers protection and warmth when needed. People are not covered with fur and need protection from the wind, cold temperatures, and from prickly vegetation when walking through forests, so it is not all about image.
In addition to protection, our clothing represents who we are. I want to dress as other people expect me to dress given my position, age and location. I just came from a Hawaiian resort hotel where all I needed to wear was a pair of swimming trunks, but if I walked to a nearby mall, I would need to put on at least sandals and a shirt, but I would still look out of place in a business suit. I would look like I was interviewing for a job. When I returned home and the temperature was much colder, I would need to wear more that a T-shirt and sandals.
Wars have been fought throughout history and up until recently, the uniforms soldiers wore identified opposing sides. A soldier knew who the enemy was by his uniform. Now, our country is fighting a war against Islamic separatists who do not identify themselves by what they wear. They wear the same clothing as all the other Islamic people, so we have no choice but to associate all Islamic people with the separatists. Their clothing is all we have to go by to identify the enemy. Some Islamic people have gone so far as to wear a sign that says, “We are Muslims, but we are not terrorists.” That does not mean much since terrorists operate in deception and wearing such a sign may be more reason to suspect a person is a terrorist.
When I was in junior high and high school, what you wore was extremely important. There were greasers, betas or nerds. If you were a greaser, you wore dirty jeans low on your hips, a black or white T-shirt and, if a coat was needed, a black leather motorcycle jacket and motorcycle boots. It told everyone you were rebellious, you did not do what your teachers wanted you to, or what anyone wanted you to do for that matter and you were tough and always ready for a fight. You wore your hair long enough to reach your collar, and you used greasy gels to keep it in place.
If you were a beta, (the word comes from college boys who belonged to fraternities) you spent a lot on your clothes to be sure you were wearing the latest fashion. A Gant shirt with a “leech tag” (little hook on the back) was very popular. You did not wear jeans, but chinos, and since you were well enough off to afford the latest fashion, you had enough connections and followers that you intimidated the greasers. They left you alone. Good looks were a requirement and you did well in school since image was everything and that motivated you to study hard. The teachers liked you and gave you special help when needed.
It was the nerds in the middle that were in trouble. They wore what their parents bought, which was usually clothes from J.C. Penney’s. They were easy prey for the greasers to beat up on them. They tried to be as invisible as possible when walking the halls to avoid being noticed by either the greasers or the betas for that matter. They worked hard to do well in school since that was all they could do to feel successful. It was hard to find a place where they were accepted, so they either joined the school orchestra or the science club, or some other club that attracted others like themselves.
We often can’t choose our friends. I lived in a neighborhood where most of the boys my age were nerds, and I wanted to fit in with them, so I tended to become a nerd. I tried to bump myself up to beta status with Gant shirts, but without peer support, I just could not make it, so greasers beat me up on several occasions. It did not help that I played the trumpet in the school band. Eventually I changed to playing the sousaphone, which belonged to the school and was too large to take home, so I would not be seen carrying my trumpet back and forth to school.
I was very happy to get out of the class-oriented society of high school and enter college, where the students just did not care what people wore. College students were there only because they wanted to be there. The greasers got jobs as auto mechanics or construction workers, the betas joined fraternities, and I lived at home while attending a home town University. There were minimal standards I had to follow, but I was never beat up because of what I wore. There were no attire based class distinctions in college.
Our own self-image is affected by what we wear. The right clothing can be an affirmation of our abilities, our drive to succeed, and our confidence that we can achieve aggressive goals. In the right clothes we are not ordinary, we are extraordinary. Marilyn Monroe said: “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” The right clothing can give us confidence and a sense of power from knowing that people respect us or are even intimidated by us.
Once I got out of college and in the professional arena, clothing again became important. I was a professional and I had to dress like one. I had to wear a suit, white shirt, tie, and nice leather dress shoes. I could take my suit coat off and hang it up while I was working in my office, but if I had to attend a meeting with upper management, I had to wear the suit coat. It became a habit and I was comfortable wearing suits. It was about that time that a monumental change occurred. Women were allowed to wear pants in the work place. It took some adjustments since some women abused the privilege and came to work in shabby jeans that were not acceptable. My attractive sister in law worked for an electrical supply company and one of the customers commented about the jeans she was wearing. She replied, “If you had legs like mine, maybe you could.” She did have great legs, and her jeans were not shabby.
In 1978, my employer, Boeing, won a contract from the Army corps of Engineers for remote processing time on their large multimillion-dollar computer systems Boeing used to design airplanes. I was sent by Boeing to train a group of Army corps of Engineers programmers working in New Orleans, Louisiana, on use of Boeing’s computer system. My job was to work with the programmers on a daily basis for a couple of months and help them understand the peculiarities of the computer system and assist them in converting their applications over to Boeing’s computers.
The first day I was dressed as usual in a suit and tie, but I noticed no one else was wearing a suit. It was hot in New Orleans in August, so the second day I left my suit coat at the hotel room, but I wore my tie. It seemed like the programmers were not comfortable with me. I was not relating to them the way I expected. I did not understand it. I usually got along well with my coworkers.
I was reviewing my progress with their manager and I mentioned that and was having trouble getting to know the programmers. He said, “Look around you; I am wearing a tie, and none of the programmers are wearing ties. Here only managers wear ties. You are wearing a tie, so you are not one of them, but a manager. The third day I left my tie at the hotel and it made a big difference. I got along a whole lot better with the programmers. We were able to joke about the tie thing, and they began to ask me personal questions about my background and who I was. This was the Deep South, so what they really wanted to know about me was if I was a Yankee. Evidently being a Yankee is much worse than being a manager. I had never thought about whether or not I was a Yankee, but I told them that my ancestors were run out of the northern states by the Yankees and settled in Mexico. Utah was part of Mexico then. That must have been good enough evidence that I was not a Yankee, and I got along fine with them after that. I never mentioned that the New York Yankees was my favorite baseball team. I increased Boeing’s billing by about $30,000/month at that one location thanks to not wearing a tie.
When I got back to my home office, I put the suit and tie back on, but it was a time when things were beginning to change. More and more programmers were dressing more casually, but I was a holdout. I eventually moved from programming into sales where I met mostly with upper management, so I continued wearing the suits and ties. Some of the programmers I hired came to work in shorts and T-shirts. One of my programmers who were working on an assignment with AT&T said one of the male AT&T programmers wore women’s clothing to work.
The 1987 movie “The Secret of My Success” referred to upper management as “suits,” meaning only upper management wore suits. In 1995 I went to Nova Scotia to attend a wedding. My good friend’s son was to marry the daughter of the CEO of AT&T Canada. He was giving a speech and made the comment, “Back when we used to wear suits to work…” This helped me to understand times are changing all the way up the corporate ladder and strict dress codes are becoming a thing of the past.
For a long time I thought a suit and tie was the lowest common denominator in business. It is not that way anymore. Now I look at a suit as a “kiss ass outfit” worn by people who are trying to “kiss ass” their way into someone else’s good graces. I do occasional work for the Utah Senate and they still require coats and ties in the Senate chambers. I wonder how long that will continue. They are all politicians and kissing asses is how they operate most of the time.
Since I am retired, if I am not going to church, or visiting the Senate chambers, temperature, comfort and modesty rule what I wear. I have an extensive wardrobe in the basement that I have not worn for years. Some day I may clear it all out and give it away to charity. I hate kissing asses.