The suit as uniform

I bought a suit. I’ve actually worn it. In public. It still feels mostly unnatural to me whenever I have it on and, in perfect honesty, I actually felt a little deceptive when I first started wearing it.

“This isn’t really me” I thought. Am I being a fake? Am I putting on a show in order to impress others? If so, is this not the very definition of hypocrisy?

In one sense, yes I am “putting on a show.” But upon further reflection it became clear that many people “put on a show” as part of their career. Left to my own fashion choices I would never wear a suit. I prefer shorts and a t-shirt if it’s all the same. I wonder if an airline pilot would say the same thing about their outfit. Do airline pilots wear their suits at home? Do they lounge around in the evenings with that fancy hat on? I doubt it.

Or what about police? Do they go home after a game of pickup football with their buddies, shower, and get into their police uniforms for a night of playing cards with their spouse? I doubt that too.

Even a waitress or waiter at an upscale restaurant is expected to maintain a certain calibre of attire, but I expect most of them change into something a little more comfortable when they get home.

And there is a reason for each of these. How comfortable would you be if, as you boarded an airplane, you peeked into the cockpit only to see the captain in ripped jeans and a hoodie? The co-pilot in a tutu?

If you see a man in uniform with weapon drawn, and another man in “street clothes” and dark sunglasses with another weapon drawn, which one of the two are you going to be more fearful of?

And if the waiter that seated you was dressed in shorts and a tank top with disheveled hair, are you more or less likely to double check that you actually received the right order and bill? Or here’s a fun one; if the waiter was wearing an airline pilot’s outfit would you remain confident that they know their way around the restaurant world?

In each of these cases we do not actually believe that these people dress like that because it is their preference. Not at all. Rather, certain roles in society typically have certain “images” associated with them, and if those images are disrupted then we find ourselves on edge. Cautious. Red flags go up, even if only slightly.

To a certain extent we expect people to dress the part depending on the social context. We dress differently if we are going to a beach as opposed to going to a wedding. The clothes I wear to the office are not the same as the clothes I wear to my son’s basketball practices.

I felt self-conscious about being in a suit, but upon further reflection I would almost certainly have felt self-conscious about being in a police officer’s uniform. Or dressed as an airline pilot. Our clothes send a message about our skill set and how we are prepared to interact with others. We trust a pilot to safely land an airplane, but we don’t expect them to handle a gunman in a bank. A police officer knows how to deal with the gunman, but I have less confidence in her ability to bring me my hamburger before it gets cold.

If I wore the uniform of an airline pilot I would implicitly be conveying the message “I know how to land a jumbo jet.” But I don’t. I haven’t even landed a Cessna in years so I’d be rusty at that. Without uttering a word to anybody such attire would convey a false message.

While our attire does not define who we are, something about how we dress is intended to convey a certain message to the world. When I wear a suit, I am saying something to those around me, just as a police officer’s uniform conveys a message to those who see it. Different message, but similar purpose to the dress code.

So in one sense I am dressing “out of character” when I wear a suit, but the reason I dress that way is to tell those who see me something about what I am doing and the skills I bring to bear on my job. Suits are very much just another type of uniform. While I’m wearing a suit I expect to discuss business matters, but I don’t think I’ll change the oil in my motorbike. I wear something else for that.

I still don’t like wearing a suit, but I think I better understand the purpose and I understand that the fear of hypocrisy isn’t grounded. I’m not so much “putting on a show” or “acting out of character” as much as I am conveying my intentions and saying something about how I hope to interact with others.

So if I don’t like suits then my dislike probably has less to do with the clothing itself and more to do with the role associated with the clothing. Why do I have an inherent distrust of people in the business world? Why do they have to work harder to earn my trust?

I guess I still have some issues to work through, and it’s becoming easier to work through those issues as I walk a mile in their suits.

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One thought on “The suit as uniform

  1. Just be glad you have worked at places that don’t require you to wear a suit so far. Plus hey, you look good in one.

    Sent from my iPad

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