Post written by Rogin Farrer.
Why do men wear suits? How is a suit different from a jacket? And how are those two different from a shirt and tie alone?
The difference lies in the level of formality. This is to say that certain clothing is appropriate for certain occasions. A man’s sartorial options have been pruned into the smallest of wardrobes in which formal clothing, like suits, are worn for important occasions, and less formal clothing, like t-shirts, for casual occasions, and so on.
Now all this probably sounds obvious. But how often do we differentiate our clothing in our day-to-day lives? Not much. There’s only formal and non-formal, occasions for suits, and then everything else. And often enough, those suits don’t look very nice, being purchased hastily and ill taken care of.
Think of the phrase, to wear one’s “Sunday best.” If you haven’t heard it before, it’s a hackneyed, WASPy idiom to describe the act of wearing one’s best clothes for church on Sunday. One would purposefully forgo wearing their nicest clothes during the week, for those were their best clothes, reserved soley for the occasions that most called for them.
But this isn’t just about not just dress clothes. Take uniforms. Retail staff and restaurant workers are often required to don a uniform, either out of functionality or appearance or both. Carpenters, for instance, often wear steel toe boots, jeans, and a work shirt. Their job demands durable and protective garments.
Our physical presentation conveys a sentiment for the various occasions, locations, and people in our lives. How we present ourselves demonstrates our understanding and appreciation of this. That’s why we have suits and tuxedos, jeans and leather shoes, and t-shirts and sneakers. These different styles of dress abide by a certain spectrum of formality (e.g., casual, business casual, formal, etc), which exists for the various events we experience and people we encounter.
A man wears a suit to an interview because he has respect for the job and means to convey competency. A boy wears a polo instead of a t-shirt to his first date because the event and person matter to him.
It seems to me that a lot of us (us being young men) either lost this understanding, or never acquired it in the first place. T-shirts, old jeans, and sneakers are the stand by uniform for every situation. The reason why is beyond the scope of this post, but the time has come for us to dress deliberately. To give a damn about how we present ourselves to the world.
This isn’t about fashion. In fact, this idea is quite the opposite. The clothes are the means to an end beyond themselves. That end is the demonstration of our understanding, that the various situations we find ourselves in demand a certain level of respect.
As I see it there’s four foundational reasons for understanding and acknowledging the levels of formality.
1. To convey respect for an event.
The varying locations and contexts in which a man finds himself throughout life carry a certain significance. The gym carries a different meaning than class, which carries a different meaning than a wedding. We show our understanding that these events carry different weights through our presentation. The choices we make the in the clothes we put on our body illustrates our understanding of an events importance.
2. To convey respect for an individual.
Closely tied to contexts, the people of our lives carry a certain signifiance. Compare meeting a close friend and meeting with one of your professors. If you wore sweats to hang out with your friend, he probably wouldn’t care. He’s seen you at your best and your worst.
If you wore sweats to class, what message does that send to your professor about how you care about her? When you wear clothes that make you look like you just rolled out of bed, that may give her the impression that her class doesn’t mean much to you.
3. To illustrate competence.
A carpenter that shows up to work with the proper footwear and clothing looks like he knows what he’s doing. And even if he doesn’t, he looks ready to pitch in and get his hands dirty.
But if he showed up with the same get-up to an interview at a law firm, the interviewer instantly knows that you don’t understand what you’re getting into.
Knowing and following the dress code shows that you’ve researched, or at least thought about, what you’re doing.
4. To add meaning to our lives.
Understanding and abiding by the dress codes of different contexts separates those experiences into meaning. The more rare and important events demand more formal levels of dress. In contrast, the things we do everyday don’t. By changing from what we’d normally wear, we then abide by another ritual of appreciating the weightier moments of our lives.
Because that’s what this is all about. Not subjugating men into meeting banal and outdated social expectations. But to add meaning to one’s life through tradition, ritual, and intentionality.