William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

On Your Duty To Dress Well

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There was no argument about it. I looked good. Overcoat, scarf, brown fedora, all topping an old-fashioned, close-to-the-body cut suit, tie, pocket square, adult shoes. The rule is: never skimp on shoes or hats, because it always shows. But everything else came from thrift stores.

One of the fellows who sat across from me obviously put just as much effort into his outfit. Doubtless he agreed with me that dressing well is a duty, that looking good makes for a superior and pleasant citizenry, that sloppiness in appearance is a manifestation of sloppiness in morals.

His t-shirt had the exact right shade of irony; the superhero emblazoned on it hadn’t been seen on television in decades. This signaled his lone-wolfiness. His jeans had an artful rip, surely put there by the designer who must have labored hours deciding exactly where to place it. Neon tennis shoes, probably costing more than my entire outfit. His greasy hair, each strand placed to look like it wasn’t placed, and scruffy beard were standard-issue hipster, but maybe that’s because he considered his Google Glasses would cause people to overlook this unoriginality.

He was right. So aware of that geeky carbuncle was I that I couldn’t think of anything but how I wanted to slap it off his face. I don’t like having my picture taken. At least he was the best, or at least most honestly, dressed of the trio that interviewed me.

The outcome was as predetermined as the color of the pocket square I would choose. Which I would have known had I first read the fate of another well dressed gentleman interviewing with the poorly attired:

The cognitive dissonance on display is painful to see. As in: Clothing is totally not a big deal! Because we’re cool like that! But it’s plain that it biased the interviewers. The team’s disappointment upon seeing the suit was immediate and unanimous. If you truly believe that suit equals loser, you can’t help it. Nevertheless, the fiction of objectivity has to be maintained, so he denies it to the candidate’s face, to us, and himself.

Scene Two. Wedding followed immediately by a reception on site. Plenteous good food and drink music and dancing. And well dressed people, their outfits showing an awareness of the occasion. At least until the meal ended, and then a few folks dashed out to disrobe and put on their Standard Summer Ugly, defined as message t-shirt, shorts, and garish shoes (Winter is the same, except the shorts are replaced by jeans). The reason given? Comfort.

Now just you take a look at the picture of Mr Sean Connery above. Perfectly dressed. Does he appear uncomfortable to you? No, sir. He does not.

Here, from the same source, is a man skating while dressed as a gentleman should be. Does he appear uncomfortable? No, sir. He does not.

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My late grandfather had a picture of his dad and uncle fishing in the Detroit river from around the turn of the last century. Both men carried stringers, bait, rods, and wore three-piece suits, because why? Because that is what men did. They knew they had a duty to society to look their best, even when at leisure.

My great grandfather and uncle did not look uncomfortable. Indeed, they were, as my grandpa assured me, at ease. I was not uncomfortable in the interview, except when peered at from behind a direct feed to the NSA (motto: We’re spying on you for you own good).

Of course, it goes without saying that Cary Grant had a right to dress like he didn’t give a damn about his onlookers, but he knew that the social contract required he do better.

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If you are uncomfortable in your adult clothes, likely as not it is a habitual mental aberration, cured by stopping thinking about it. But it’s also probable that the fit of your garments stinks.

The boxy suits sold nowadays are designed for 1950s barrel-shaped robots, not men. This too is easily fixed. Take your purchases to a tailor and have him alter them to your body. Do not trust the department stores to do this for you. We’ll speak of this more later, but you will find that clothes meant to fit you and not some generic statistical homme moyen are eminently comfortable. Movement will be easy and free. And you will look good—as you should.

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Thanks to our friend John Cook for the picture source.

23 Comments

  1. Mike in KC, MO

    July 2, 2014 at 8:42 am

    I would disagree with a close fitting suit. They cause my daily carry weapon to print too much.

    For everything else… yup.

  2. A fine tie, affordable by most, enhances almost any outfit, hipsters, excluded: They are beyond hope trapped by their oxymoronic desire to appear “cool.”

  3. They knew they had a duty to society to look their best, even when at leisure.

    This strikes me as an excuse for dressing well. The physical appearance of animals, especially birds, is an advertisement of their health, vigor, and genes. Humans amplify their message with adornment. It’s okay to want to project an image. No need to invoke a slavish obligation to “society.”

    As for “dressing well,” that varies by place, time, status, and culture. The unstated premise is that one’s opinion is the only correct one. Who arbitrates the arbiters of style?

  4. [D]ressing well is a duty, that looking good makes for a superior and pleasant citizenry, that sloppiness in appearance is a manifestation of sloppiness in morals.

    Grandpa Gallo said that Italian gangsters were the best-dressed bunch, and that it was the members’ duty to dress well.

    It is fine to want to dress well to impress people and feel superior. Men are entitled to be vain too. However, it is totally a different matter to judge the character of others by how they dress.

  5. [D]ressing well is a duty, that looking good makes for a superior and pleasant citizenry, that sloppiness in appearance is a manifestation of sloppiness in morals.

    Grandpa Gallo said that Italian gangsters were the best-dressed bunch, and that it was the members’ duty to dress well.
    It is fine to want to dress well to impress people and feel superior. Men are entitled to be vain too. However, it is totally a different matter to judge the character of others by how they dress.

  6. “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” — Thoreau (who could teach you a lot about real values, ethics… and dress).

  7. In the 1980s I lived in Virginia and interviewed with an electronics company in California. I walked into the interview wearing a suit and the people interviewing me were wearing slacks and open collar shirts. When I saw the looks on their faces when I walked in, I knew I wasn’t going to be hired. The look they gave me was like they were thinking, another one of those stuffy jerks from the east coast. Shouldn’t have worn that suit.

  8. Briggs

    July 2, 2014 at 11:44 am

    JH,

    Tell the truth. You were wearing socks and sandals when you wrote that comment, right?

  9. The Duke Of Windsor had an unfailing dress sense, as did the Duchess. Both knew that one could be elegant and immaculate, whether casually dressed or not.

  10. I used to work for a retail clothing corporation. Most of these “ironic” people would be aghast at the conditions in the factories where their jeans are made. People on a line with a block wrapped in sandpaper, placing the holes and tears “just so”, 12 hours a day. This is followed up by a chemical treatment (clearly not “green”) to give the jeans that old and faded look. Li and Fung are making a killing on “irony”. Well, at least, irony that costs only $50 instead of the kind bought in Soho for $1050…

  11. You might want to wander around a typical American university this fall when it is back in session and during the week.

    The male faculty dress like the teenagers in their classes, and the teenagers mock them for it behind their backs. The women faculty dress business casual in order to enhance their status vis-a-vis the male faculty and the teenagers. Administrators of both sexes from department chairs up dress business formal, often in well-tailored suits, neckties for men and polished shoes, wingtips even.

    However, no one wears a hat.

  12. Mr. Briggs, wrong. No shoes or sandals allowed in the house. Too hot to wear socks.

  13. When I was working on Space Telescope, we had a meeting in Colorado after which we went out to ski resort. One of he guys from California wen skiing in a three piece suit.

  14. I remember, when I was young and just getting into the professional world, I would go to the richest towns around NYC, and go to the thrift shops there, and buy these fantastic outfits for just the few bucks in my pocket. My biggest find was this absolutely perfect Macy’s Basement Camel jacket. Fit me to a tee, and I have a long build. It must’ve cost at least a couple hundred new even 25 years ago. I got it for ten bucks. That was my Friday jacket one or twice a month for years and years. I still have it. It’ all worn and permanently hung now, but everyone always loved that jacket. I like to just look at it once in a while. I used to look real smart in that baby. I’m gonna go look at it again. Thanks.

    JMJ

  15. RE: “…looking good makes for a superior and pleasant citizenry, that sloppiness in appearance is a manifestation of sloppiness in morals.”

    Any data supporting that?

    Of course not.

    Ever notice how “psychopathic”/”evil” corporate executives (e.g. Enron, etc.) and politicians who, to a person, dress/ed impeccably. [rhetorical question] They sure have an effect on society … but hardly contributing to a “pleasant & superior citizenry”… not to mention JH’s observation of well-dressed Mafioso & their many impacts on society.

    Let’s not forget a guy who must have been ‘morally sloppy’ [if one accepts Briggs’ superficiality] given that, even by the austere standards of the time, he dressed so notably slovenly that his attire warranted special mention — “a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist”… John The Baptist (2 Kings 1:8, also see Zechariah 13:4). Then there was his colleague:

    “If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces” (Luke 7:25)…and we know [or ought to know] how morally upright that bunch was considered by that guy [who was in a prime position to pass judgment on such matters]…who also said:

    “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (1 Timothy 2:9-10).

    “sloppiness in appearance is a manifestation of sloppiness in morals”

    Bullocks. The exceptions are so many & so profound they shatter any presumption such a superficial precept can be possible.

    The falsity of that incredibly superficial presumption (routinely applied in comic books & the like) is the underlying theme of the classic [Oscar Wilde’s book & inspired movie(s)], The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which the impeccable Mr. Gray meets all of Briggs’ superficial criteria for moral uprightness but who was in fact rotten to the core.

    Which was/is the point — it’s not the image & wrapping that matters, it’s the substance of one’s character that matters.

    The packaging merely contributes to an illusion…and such illusions apply to a person or an entire society. For example, when Briggs’ kin were out fishing in suits on the Detroit River ole Henry Ford & his well-dressed company officers were resorting to brutal thuggery on the workers, many assembly line workers were forced to toil under conditions everybody finds abhorrent today…and Mr. Ford’s well-known affair with one of his executive’s wife who he conveniently placed in a home close to his with a special back entrance for just that purpose. And such went on & on; and, it’s not like Ford was a special case (a social “outlier”) because his wasn’t. Just like today. But society sure “looked” more upright & proper & moral. But that pretense was not reality.

    Time to outgrow the illusions of what was, because it wasn’t.

  16. I don’t think Briggs was making a case for causality in dress and class. I inferred a simple observation there, and one that is quite reasonable. I would only differ in my observation of morality among the classes. If anything, it seems the Upper-Middle on up classes in America are less moral than the Middle Class and below. It’s just that the types of immorality practiced by the lower classes offends him more than the immorality practiced by the upper. Having spent my life between divergent classes, I see it the other way around. To be honest, I’ve found the common street criminal more moral in his behavior than multitudes in his “superior” classes.

    JMJ

  17. I once worked for Ross Perot at EDS. Everyone was dressed well, or they’d be fired. Fortunately for me, I worked for an office that was acquired without a dress code requirement. One time, as I got off the elevator to Ross’s office, someone else spotted me with (gasp) a beard, and tripped and fell in astonishment.

    Briggs, you’re usually right. Not in this case. Many of us are quite uncomfortable in three piece suits – especially here in Arizona where the temperatures are extreme. I much prefer a Hawaiian shirt – they are quite pretty if you don’t get the wrong ones. If someone thinks that means I have lax morals, it shows that they have poor judgement.

  18. ‘The packaging merely contributes to an illusion…and such illusions apply to a person or an entire society. ‘

    Ok, Ken. So start thinking what illusion is created by the ripped jeans and ironic t-shirt.

    And then think about what ‘illusion’ – aka statement – you want to create by your clothes.

    And then, with a bit of effort, you’ll see that Matt is right. Sloppy clothes speak of sloppy morals. Criminals in suits are hypocrites. But give me hypocrites any day over people who embrace their lack of morals openly. You can argue with a hypocrite.

    And by they way, compare the clothing of John the Baptist with Elijah’s. St John was carefully and correctly dressed. He knew what his clothes said and he wanted to say it.

  19. jake-the-rake

    July 3, 2014 at 2:50 am

    Well I can see a certain rightness to the post. I remember my repeated traffic light studies of Rome’s most popular beggar. The elderly man was well-dressed and groomed, wore a wristwatch and greeted everyone with a smile. He must’ve packed a million of old Lire a day.

    And since we are all sinners – bums – the example of that successful derelict deserves to be considered. Dress up and you’ll get more consideration…

    But… but… L’abito non fa il monaco (you can’t judge a book by its cover)…

    The only way out of the impasse is to transpose the matter to the realm of food and study the honest (and random) outcomes.

    Well, excluding starvation, we notice and must admit that PRESENTATION matters. It simply and naturally does.

    i.e. Garnishings exist… they are more important in restaurants (job interviews, etc.) than at home… but in any case even the home table is preferred clean and orderly.

    Mistrust the presentations of fast food chains… they have food designers reaching unattainable heights, but at the cost of using motor oil instead of olive oil – ’cause it films better. I guess that parallels with high fashion.

    They don’t eat what they immortalize. They dress overly well, but not honestly.

    Suit and tie? Maybe too much, but home cooking (dressing) can always use an upgrade.

    Though one can wait till it cools off and drink it directly from the Moka spout, an espresso seems to deserve a pretty cup, certainly better than the plastic popping out of the automatic vending machines.

    Food at the outdoor markets is generally well presented. Beauty and elegance, attractiveness matter.

    Your post passes the food test. It used to be “I can dig it”… until nihilism takes over it’s gotta be “I can eat it and it’s nourishing.”

  20. Every word of this post is absolutely spot on. Thank you!

  21. Briggs

    July 3, 2014 at 6:29 am

    John Moore,

    Suits, three-piece or other, are, of course, not the only option. Why, only yesterday in the great heat and humidity I had a stripped linen shirt (sleeves rolled up) outside of a pair of linen pants which had a tie and not a belt, topped by a Havana-like straw hat, and light tan loafers.

    I also had a cigar (a gift) and sunglasses (from a dollar store).

    Naturally, if I had to meet anybody, I would have topped it all with a jacket.

  22. While not a hipster, I have usually been inclined to dress down rather than up. More comfortable, seeming to be more modest.

    Recently, though, I find myself appreciating the points you make here, and a related point by Chesterton – he spoke of a man who wore comfortable undergarments beneath rich, colorful clothes. GKC noted that the well dressed man wore his clothes this way so that he could enjoy the comfort while others could enjoy the crimson and gold.

    This he contrasted with businessmen, who wore the drab colors on the outside, and the gold underneath, next to their hearts.

    I’ve always thought that was a chilling observation, and it has motivated my agreement here.

  23. ” I was not uncomfortable in the interview, except when peered at from behind a direct feed to the NSA”

    Briggs, were you uncomfortable when you signed in at the visitor lobby? You should have been. Those machines take photos of visitors and provide feeds to the DHS. This is common practice at companies which the US govt/military patronizes (you know who I am talking about).

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