Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Day 34 - Clothes Make the Man

          I’ve always been something of a dandy—not a fully realized one as that requires considerably more disposable income than I’ve ever been able to muster—but I do appreciate and wear nice clothes to the extent practical. I like to think that I’ve got a good eye for color and texture, and I’m not afraid to take a fashion risk. I was the first of all my friends to adopt and abandon bell bottom trousers, Nehru jackets, double breasted suits, pleated pants, suspenders, cowboy boots, black tee-shirts with a sports jacket, two-tone shirts, jewel-tone dress shirts, Hawaiian shirts, and a raft of others over the years. I came by this condition honestly. My dad liked to dress up as well, and had a collection of ties that I covet to this day. His dad, my grandfather, was a tailor by trade and was always immaculately turned out.
          It is with considerable excitement then that I set out to get myself a new suit. It is with considerable chagrin that I realize that I am going to have to spend more money than I am comfortable spending to dress myself in a fashion equal to my aspirations. Not having that kind of cash, I’m going to have to compromise. That means a trip to a discount clothier. Not so bad really, but under the circumstances I’d rather be able to deck myself out smartly—to look as successful as I think I need to feel to get the job I think I ought to have.

            There’s been a lot written and said about how to dress for an interview, a job, success. Most of it has been less than helpful in the situations in which I’ve found myself over the course of my career. What’s written and popularized in the press pertains to, as a rule, big firms in big cities. My experience has been with small firms in small cities, and in these places anything too fashionable is viewed with a certain amount of suspicion.
          A company in Alabama was a case in point. When I started there all the men in the finance department were required to wear ties. Jackets were optional, but a dress shirt and a necktie were the uniform of the day. The CFO at the time was an older gentleman, always impeccably dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and silk tie. The dress rule was his, and though there was some grousing from the good old boys, there was no real dissention. When the old gentleman CFO retired and the company brought in a younger, hipper, more assertive, and less gentlemanly replacement, the first thing to go was the necktie rule. A collective sigh of relief went up as the ties came off and the dress shirts were replaced with a diverse collection of colorful knits and short sleeves. Comfort was the new order of things, and given the Alabama propensity for 100 degree days from July into September not a minute too soon.
          I myself relished the new freedom. I spent a lot of time on the plant floor, and I felt that my effectiveness there was improved once I no longer had to worry about the possibility of ruining my ‘good’ clothes. Nothing spoils your day like getting machine oil on a $40 silk tie. Things went along swimmingly for a while, but gradually my internal sartorial discipline began to flag. This is perhaps because my waistline was expanding at an alarming rate, and the expense of accommodating it with ever larger clothing was getting to be a burden on the household budget. Rather than limit my intake of calories I opted for the less restrained but wholly more satisfying approach of buying cheaper clothes.
          So one day I found myself on the way to a meeting with executive management in the company of my boss, the division vice president—he resplendent in pressed wool slacks and a stunning sports jacket and me in a fleece sweater, brogans, and extremely commodious jeans. My boss took the opportunity to comment on my deteriorating mode of dress.
          “You know,” he said, “whenever someone asks me who is the baggy-pants clown that I’m always hanging out with, I have to tell them ‘That’s no clown. That’s my controller.’”
          I didn’t say anything at that point because, let’s face it, there was nothing I could say that would reflect well on my character. I could have advanced the arguments my children used on me when they were teenagers trying to get out of the house dressed as street toughs—‘It’s not how you dress that’s important; it’s what kind of person you are inside.’ As adults and parents we all understand that not only is that statement irrefutably true, it is utter bullshit. Why? For the simple reason that the world does not work that way. The world works on appearances. The world cares little for substance and character, nor has it since Machiavelli published The Prince in 1513. It is important to cultivate the appearance of character and virtue in the world, but if you want to prosper you need to stop short of actually possessing character and virtue. If it were otherwise accountants would flourish while politicians and salesmen would toil in oblivion.
          My boss went on, “If you would dress professionally you might be surprised to find that you are taken more seriously. You might even find that there is a place for you over in the corporate finance office. You’ve certainly got the talent. You just need to look the part.”
          Well there it was in plain language—Machiavellian principles fully realized in the less princely world of corporate America. You’re not going anywhere on talent and intelligence, not until you look the part. Appearance trumps ability…almost every time. The famous baseball player, Ted Williams, once said “I’ve found that you don’t need to wear a necktie if you can hit.” I wouldn’t say that this is the exception that proves the rule. The statement sounds remarkably similar to the arguments of my children. The only thing it proves to me is that baseball is not nearly the consummate metaphor for life that we would like it to be. It is a game played by boys who have never liked to wear ties. The workplace may like to talk about baseball around the water cooler or in the break room over coffee, but it is not an environment in which boys thrive who will not put on a tie and pretend to be grown-ups.
          I know when to take a suggestion. That night I went shopping on the way home from work. I stocked up on dress shirts, tailored slacks, and conservative neckties. Next day I showed up at work decked out in my splendid new duds. The reaction of my peers was less than comforting. Most thought that I must have scheduled a job interview. It occurred to me that if that’s what the executive management team thought, I probably wouldn’t be getting the kind of attention to which my boss had alluded. More likely I would be viewed with suspicion so long as I continued to overdress for my station. I was suddenly trapped between second and third, and baseball had become a more appropriate metaphor than I imagined just a paragraph ago.
          There is another apt Ted Williams quote: “God gets you to the plate, but once you’re there you’re on your own.”
          On my own I decided to keep wearing my new professional attire. If new clothes weren’t going to get me promoted, at least they seemed to be getting me noticed. If I wasn’t going to be taken seriously, at least I could keep them guessing. In the end I got the axe and the knit shirt boys got to stay. Sometimes it’s just hard to draw pertinent conclusions.
          An interview suit ought to be dark blue, either solid or in a muted pattern or stripe. In a pinch you may substitute black or dark grey. The shirt should be white. The tie should be striped. Everything I’ve read on the various job boards is in pretty specific agreement on these points. I don’t own a blue suit because I don’t look that good in blue. I do own a black suit, but I haven’t been able to button the jacket or the trousers for at least two years. This is the beginning of the compromises I am going to have to make.
          I don’t want to buy a blue suit because I don’t like blue suits. I don’t want to buy a black suit because I already own a black suit, and, like most overweight people, I live with the fantasy that one day I will begin to exercise and eat sensibly and lose the few pounds required to get back into my old clothes again. What I want to buy is a brown suit. I like brown. I’ve read that it is the new black. I think I know what that means, but I’m not sure that it was meant to apply to me. Because I like brown I’m going to apply it to me anyway.
          Job hunt gurus like blue because it is a sincere color. Wear blue and you come across as solid, substantial, sober, thoughtful, and mature. I’m not sure what brown says. No one has anything to say about brown because they’re all on the blue bandwagon. I think brown is sincere as well. I think brown is at least as sincere as blue—maybe more so, and here’s why. Every politician I’ve ever seen was wearing a blue, black or grey suit. Every stockbroker, banker, and insurance executive I’ve ever seen was wearing a blue, black or grey suit. Every lawyer I’ve ever seen was wearing a blue, black or grey suit. Now it’s just possible that in some utopian state of existence some of those politicians, stockbrokers, bankers, insurance executives, and lawyers may in fact be sincere, but the odds are certainly against it. Yet, owing to the blue, black or dark grey suits, all these charlatans appear to be sincere. There has to be a better litmus test for sincerity than the color of one’s suit if every scheming sneak thief bastard in the world is using his suit to proclaim his ethical worthiness.
I like brown. I think it is sincere, but even if it is not, at least it doesn’t proclaim sneak thief trying to look sincere or scam artist trying to disarm you with the appearance of inner merit. When I read over these last sentences and allow the full implications of what I think and what I’ve said to register, I begin to think that I may never get another job.

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