I was one of the few women on Wall Street. I thought the way of dressing there was just stupid. I had beautiful long legs. I wore brown velvet hot pants with brown stockings and brown heels.
I’m the type of designer who meets clients wearing graphic tees, jeans and old sneakers. When my friends find out about this “dress code” of mine, they often ask me why I do it? Why don’t I wear, like, business suits or slacks or leather shoes? Isn’t that like, a rule or something?
It’s a convention, not a rule. It’s just that most people think it’s the right thing to do, to look formal and all, so everyone thinks that it’s actually protocol. But it’s really not.
Why We Wear What We Wear
It is said that what we wear shows who we are. A shitload of crap. What we wear doesn’t show who we are, it actually just gives other people the idea of the group we belong to. There’s this idea that if you wear a certain style of clothing, you belong to a certain group. We usually call it stereotyping and it’s bad. But why do people associate clothes with groups?
While there are deliberate instances where a group would actually adopt a certain clothing style—like how goths always wear black clothes and how emo kids always wear girls’ pants—more often it is an unconscious process where people of the same groups gravitate towards a specific sense of style. And when a group unconsciously adopts a style, two things happen: first is that new members of the group will think that that particular style is the norm for that particular group and the second is that people will consciously associate that style with that group because they think it’s the norm for the group.
That first byproduct, wherein newer members try to apply what they think are norms, is interesting, because these new members are the ones who become the “establishers” of what they thought were the rules. They adopted the style because they thought that it was the rule and that they needed to follow that rule in order to belong. This idea that links the clothing to the group becomes ingrained within these new members that they end up enforcing this rule to newer members: to belong to our group, you have to adopt our style.
And that’s where it gets murky. Now everyone thinks they have to adopt the style to belong to a group even if the choice one’s clothing doesn’t have any bearing on the activities or the beliefs of the group.
So Why the Designers in Suits?
There’s no better way to understand a group than to actually be a part of it. Firsthand information, juicy details, mechanics, inner workings and all the malarkey. When you’re part of the group, you know the group intimately like no one else does. And that give you an advantage.
Designers know this. There’s no better way to know your clients than to be like them and to move through the circles they belong to. And the first step is to get the group’s approval. Thus, we go back to the idea of dressing up—we wear suits and coats and leather shoes—because we think that these are their norms.
It’s ingenious really, because not only do we get to know our clients by the simple act of dressing up, we also give them the idea that we’re part of their group. They think that we actually understand them, that we really know their business. And because they think we know their business, our services seem to have a higher value to them.
Yeah, I Know. Totally Mental.
The problem is that no matter how hard I try to persuade myself, I know that I really don’t belong to the same groups as my clients. I’m a designer. My clients businesses are more or less remotely similar to my own. If my client works for design just like me, then he’d probably won’t be my client because I am of no use to him.
As a designer, I have absolutely no need to know my clients intimately. Sure, I need facts, I need figures, I need things that will help me in my work. But their business is their business. I don’t care if their products are really shitty or that their work is really lame. As a designer, I’m not there to know who they are. I’m there to help them convey who they think they are. Even if I know how ugly my client’s business model is, it won’t friggin’ matter because if he wants to tell the world that he’s brilliant, it’s my work to make that lie a reality through my design.
And this is where the suits should come off. We no longer need to pull off an air of belonging by wearing business attires or suits or leather shoes. We don’t need to look like we belong or that we understand their business. Because what we really need to do is to make our clients understand that we’re there to help them communicate whatever they want to communicate about their business. No matter how intimately we know their business, it won’t matter. Because the vision and the message that they want to communicate won’t be coming from our knowledge of their business: it’s their own illusions to create.
And I could be naked doing that, for all I care. Besides, unlike Martha, I have short legs; I wouldn’t look good in slacks—or brown velvet hot pants.