When you open your closet in the morning, do you ask, “What outfit will help me perform best today?” Or is it more along the lines of, “What outfit will make me look good today?”
When you go on a safari, you don’t wonder which kind of beige the lion would like. You pick the trousers with the most pockets and the vest that will best keep out the sand. Meanwhile, in our modern society where clothes are all but irrelevant as we all type away on nearly identical keyboards, we still spend a great deal of energy on dressing for opinions rather than functionality.
The problem is about as old as clothes themselves and, thankfully, turtleneck-wearing geniuses, billionaires in sweatpants, and the working-from-home revolution have already mellowed dress codes to some extent. But as long as the idea is in our heads — “I need to look good in front of strangers” — the battle is far from won.
“Kings and queens who wear a suit but once, though made by some tailor or dressmaker to their majesties, cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits,” Thoreau mused in Walden some 150 years ago. “A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in,” he suggested. “Much of any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding to [our] wardrobe,” Thoreau believed, and today, he’d be more right than ever in this line of thinking.
But if “the head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same,” or at least feel pressured to do so, we are no further than when Thoreau penned his words, no better than the kings and queens who wear a suit but once.
Sometimes, dressing for performance will mean looking good — and not just when the performance is one where you’re trying to impress other people. How you feel when you leave the house matters. Most of the time, however, it is enough to comb your hair, smell-check the sweater, and once again find comfort in the suit that already fits.
“Perhaps we should never procure a new suit,” the naturalist wondered, “however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles.”
If an accessory or routine aids you in accomplishing the important work you set out to do, by all means, use it. But if you find yourself dressing mainly to not upset others, you might want to give this century-old metric a try: New identity, new clothes. Same identity, same clothes. Now that’s some functional clothing.