The dress code.

If you’re reading this at the office, chances are that you have a pretty lax dress code. Gone are the days of suit-and-tie professional attire, certainly in the soi-disant “civilised” west, because so too are the days of social mobility. So now you can wear a polo shirt and jeans, maybe even a t-shirt and khakis, and probably do without a jacket of any sort whatsoever. And in case you weren’t aware, this is some seriously oppressive policy shit.

Hold up Pete, don’t you have that backwards ? Isn’t Casual Friday Erryday a sign that our societyi has moved beyond ye olde hierarchies, beyond rigid gender roles, and beyond the choking restrictions on self-expression of yesteryear ? Don’t we have it better in every measurable way than every generation ever in the history of mankind ? Certainly, these supercomputers in our pockets, gender neutral bathrooms, and social wikimedia have laid the groundwork for a new global consciousness that has no precedent in the past. Surely…

Well, Little Timmy, it’s funny you should think that, because that’s exactly what I thought too… when I was seven years old. What I’ve since come to appreciate is the subtle and arguably nefarious way in which casual dress codes are correlated with poor social mobility, and conversely that societies with stricter dress codes – such as the Mormons – have relatively higher levels of movement between social strata. This apparent contradiction boils down to the following : there’s more art to looking sharp in casual attire than in a suit and tie!

Consider the following parallel scenarios : A) You’re a new immigrant to AlphaCity and you find yourself a job at a hundred-year-old accounting firm called, creatively, AlphAccountants Ltd.. The founder’s great-grandson manages the firm and everyone from top to bottom wears dark blue suits. Before your first day, with only a few hundred dollars to your name, you buy an off-the-rack suit, two plain white dress shirts and two ties – one blue and one red – and a pair of black dress shoes. When your first day arrives, you excitedly don your new threads, particularly content with your new red tie, and set off for the office. There, you’re assigned a desk where you set out to familiarise yourself with the company’s software suite and, of course, your new colleagues who are all dressed more or less exactly like you. Whether they’re wearing suits from Tip Top Tailors or Ted Baker isn’t entirely clear, and that’s great! As time marches on and you start to earn more income, you buy a second blue suit – one with the faintest blue pinstripes – and one that makes you feel like a million bucks when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the reflective curtain wall facades of the gleaming skyscraper foyers along your ten-minutes walk from your small downtown apartment to the office each morning. And even though you’re one of many such reflections in the glass, you’re absolutely tickled pink by it all. What a wonderful new world, this AlphaCity!, you think to yourself. So welcoming! In just a few short months you’ve managed to integrate culturally and hop on the successkalatorii in a way never possible in the old country. And even though you would almost certainly never own AlphAccountants yourself, the opportunities elsewhere on the ladder were as accessible as you were determined.

B) But let’s say you choose BravoTown instead, and once there, you find yourself an accounting job at a manufacturer of autonomous electric vehicles called, creatively, BravoBots. The firm has been around for over fifteen years, a long time for a firm at the cutting edge of this industry, but the founder is well-connected politically and the future of the company looks bright.iii Before your first day, with only a few hundred dollars to your name, you buy five t-shirts and two pairs of jeans from American Eagle and a pair of very comfortable Reebok crosstrainers from Pay Less Shoes. You can’t believe your good fortune that there’s no formal dress code at BravoBots! You’re already begun envisioning how much more productive you’ll be at work given that you don’t have to wear one of those unbearable nooses around your neck each and everyday. When your first day arrives, you excitedly don your new threads, particularly content with your new crosstrainers, and set off for the office. There, you’re assigned a desk where you set out to familiarise yourself with the company’s software suite and, of course, your new colleagues who are all dressed more or less exactly like you… except not. Which store their shirts, jeans, and shoes are from is all too clear. Screamingly clear. And no one else is wearing anything from American Eagle or Reebok. It’s all Nike and Lululemon. Their brand logos are smaller than yours but crisper and more reflective too, and you can’t miss them anymore than you can miss the harvest moon on the prairie horizon in early fall. It’s all so casual and relaxed, and yet you feel woefully out of place. Like the autistic kid in elementary school who thought he could get away with wearing fashionable girl’s sneakers and no one would notice, only for the class bully to recognise the footwear as those of his sister’s. As time marches on and you start to earn more income and you buy a few more t-shirts, a single polo shirt, new jeans, and some Nike runners – but it’s never quite enough. The fashions are changing too quickly and what you wore before soon looks dated and passe. What a frustrating new world, this BravoTown!, you think to yourself. So complicated! In just a few short months you’ve barely scratched the surface culturally and you’re not even sure if there is a successkalator, much like in the old country. Not only would you almost certainly never own BravoBots yourself, the opportunities elsewhere on the ladder were as muddled as your half-AE, half-Nike wardrobe.

With these two scenarios, just consider the number of variables at play. A suit might be paired with a vest,a tie or bowtie, and the shirt might have cufflinks, or the wearer might have shinier shoes or more vibrantly coloured socks, but the overall impression from 30 feet away is largely the same regardless of these details. Compare this with casual attire, which might include runners or sandals or Prada loafers, it might include a dogchain and wifebeater, or it might be carefully mudded jeans and a sport coat with an ultra-deep v-neck underneath. The range of possible impressions therefore ranges from bohemian to beach bum to footballer to kebab stand operator to personal financial advisor. From 30 feet away, it’s not hard to tell the rich from the poor in a casual environment.

The casual dress code is therefore far from utopia-on-earth, but rather the perversity of progress and contradiction of modernity on full display – it’s the embodiment of inequality beneath the mask of fairness and yet one more weapon of the #imwithhere sheltered coastal elite.

The only question that remains is if you’re going to take it lying down… or suit up.

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  1. And of course “our democracy“!!!1!!1 []
  2. The escalator of success. Duh. []
  3. Sure, the future looks so bright because history isn’t your forte, but such is life! []