Suit – n. – A set of matching outer garments

Last week, I briefly saw a blurb on CNN about President Obama changing the dress code at the White House away from suits and ties to a more casual atmosphere. (link is actually to NY Times article where I am assuming CNN got their story as they had no page of their own.) My initial thought was, “Way to go!”

Since then, I have repeatedly thought about this story. The dean of my former library was a lady who believed in wearing suits. I know that if she would have had her way we would all have worn a suit, pants or skirt complete with hose, to work every day. There was no dress code at work; we were expected to be presentable and most took that to mean business casual. My former dean, whatever she wanted or thought, knew she would never be able to get her staff to comply and so she let us wear what we would. It mostly worked out fine.

In the Fall, my church held a congregational meeting about changing the worship schedule at our church. During the meeting, an older member stood up and stated that the pastors had said that they would begin wearing ties after Labor Day; It was now well past Labor Day and why were the pastors not wearing a suit and tie on Sundays? Now, this meeting was not about ties, suits, or attire at all, but this was the most pressing problem on this member’s mind – that there was no way our pastors could preach the word of God in polos and khaki pants. For those of you that care to know, when the weather cools off, the pastors usually begin wearing suits and ties again, trading it for simpler, cooler attire as Spring and Summer approach again. I wonder if after Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount people were like, “That was profound, but did you see his robe?! There is no way he could be speaking the truth in an outfit like that.”

These two stories have a few things in common. It is generally, but not always, the case that the older you are the more likely you are to believe that a suit and tie is business apparel and that is just that. But it is not just about age. How you appear does give other people an idea about you. Appearances are important. Good grooming is important. Whether you have tattoos, a suit, or your hair cut a certain way says things about you. We choose to groom a certain way because we want to be seen in certain lights. However, the fact that I have a tattoo does not affect my ability to be a librarian, wife, mother, or friend.

I think this is a multi-faceted issue that has been rearing its ugly head since man put on the first animal skin. I do believe in being well groomed, but I do not think the only way to do business is in a suit. I do believe that you should occasionally concede and wear the uniform of the group you are trying to infiltrate. I would strongly advise against trying to change the norms of a group by yourself from the bottom of the food chain. Not only will you further isolate yourself, you will bloody your forehead against that wall to no avail. You need allies if you are on the bottom. On the top… well that is another matter. You can use your power as you see fit. President Obama has the power to affect the dress code of those around him; the page boy does not.

A dress code is like a uniform. It says, “You belong to this group because you look the same.” It is called a business suit because people who do business wear them. If you see someone in a suit, you think business person. We all want to belong, but many of us chafe under sameness or strictness.

At my former library, business casual was the uniform. Many of us dressed down a bit on Fridays, declaring that day casual to ourselves and damn the consequences. There never were consequences as there was no “official” dress code. On Fridays, I usually wore what I wished I could wear all week. If I had my choice, I would have gone to work everyday in jeans, a nice shirt, and a corduroy jacket or sweater (that is me with the camera). I am, in my heart, a jeans and t-shirt girl.

All this blathering so that we come to this conclusion: We spend a lot of time worrying, talking, and obsessing about clothes. The Situation Room had a whole segment on Obama’s dress code policy for Pete’s sake when we are at war and in a recession. *eyeroll* We make policies, we have rules, we draw lines in the sand and still, for many, there are no conclusions about what is or not appropriate attire.

If your place of work has clothing issues, the Powers That Be should consider a few things before making irrevocable laws. What should be the most important is that the staff appear well groomed and that the staff do their jobs well. I am not sure a boss could ask for more than a job well done (defined how you will) by a recently showered human being wearing clothes. Wouldn’t you rather have everyone doing their jobs well and have an array of attire than only a handful in suits getting things done?

–Jane, she sure would