It’s hot, and I want to wear shorts. Every day. But I only have one pair, and ridiculously they are dry clean only. I wear them for about five days in a row and then send them off for cleaning while I struggle to figure out what to wear every day for a week. It would be really convenient if I could buy a new machine-washable pair! As it is, I struggle to find comfortable, casual summer clothing to wear working from home every day in a room without air conditioning. The problem is that, after five years of my working in the law in an office, all my spring and summer clothes are formalwear.
Why, I must ask myself, do I have all these clothes I don’t want to wear? In my closet, summer-weight suit jackets and brightly colored tailored dresses abound. Sure, theoretically, I could wear them to sit at my home desk and take my dog to the park in the middle of the day, but let’s be real. They may be comfortable as far as formal workwear goes, but they are not comfortable enough to wear at home when I could be wearing shorts.
I’m not wearing my workwear now because it’s not my most comfortable choice. It’s not the clothing most conducive to my comfortably tucking in at my desk and getting stuff done. But this begs the question: If that’s case, why was I ever wearing workwear at all? Why does anyone? Why do we have designated styles and cuts of clothing that we are supposed to wear in specific places or while doing certain things? Why does my wearing an uncomfortable tailored dress signify that I am more serious than my wearing shorts? Or why would my husband’s wearing jeans and sneakers to work mean he was less competent than if he was in tailored trousers and pinching leather shoes? It seems to me that the only reason is that convention says it is so, and we accept it at that, even though requiring people to wear less comfortable clothes in settings where they are more likely to be required to be doing something productive seems entirely counterproductive.
Sure, some offices have gone to “casual Fridays” and “business casual” (whatever that means), but we still have very definite ideas about what clothes we can wear when and where. When I try to look beyond the cliché of looking your best or ‘dressing for success,’ I find it difficult to fathom what reason exists for the persistence of these ideas about appropriate clothing for different settings, for these strictures that have nothing to do with the clothing’s comfort, utility or suitability for the weather.
Even the idea of ‘dressing for success’ seems problematic. We want other people to perceive us as looking good, but what other people perceive as “well dressed” is entirely dependent on the indoctrination of cultural clothing norms. As changes in fashion over the centuries attest (and certain trends like ruff collars popular in the 16th and 17th centuries scream), what we think looks “good” is largely learned not innate. Yes, I think my knee-length, nipped-waist L.K. Bennett work dresses look great, but I have to wonder if that’s only because I have been taught to think it is so. And is it really worth the way they chafe under my arms or make me fear popping a zipper after a big lunch as I struggle to sit upright at my desk without ripping a seam?
I suspect clothing norms won’t change anytime soon, but it’s worth thinking about why we expect people to wear certain things in certain places and whether it makes any sense. At least for now, I’ll be glad I can get away with wearing my shorts.