I’ll give them this: clothes are convenient in the cold. We can warm specific parts up with strategic clothing. Upper half, lower half, extremities, all separately or together. Even highly specific, like palms. Just the torso. Ankles only. Around the head, but not covering the head. Clothes are targeted.

But clothes aren’t just functional. They’re deeply linked to our sense of selves and our social construct. They gain us access and deny us entry. They’re a passport and a shorthand. They’re a pass and a target.

Yesterday, I wore some ridiculous dog joggers (as in, they had pictures of dogs all over them) and a shapeless wool t-shirt with an oversized sweatshirt to work. When I go to my office (as opposed from working in my house), I tend to dress in tech casual. That’s what I typically feel the most comfortable wearing when in a professional office building. It’s very different from what I’d have to wear when I worked in a colocated office at my previous job – which was business casual and had very definite (restrictive) Rules.

These days, I could wear pajamas 24/7. The outcome of my work is not dependent on my outerwear. No one I work with cares what I wear to work, as the majority of them don’t see me, day-to-day. Clothing is irrelevant to our work, and it’s irrelevant to the outcome of our work. We don’t need PPE, for example, to perform our work and stay safe (unless working in a public place and wearing a mask), and wearing a particular combination of special clothing doesn’t make our work more or less successful (like it would for a professional athlete).

Many offices that are colocated tend to advocate and emphasize that type of clothing affects the outcome of work.

Does it?

Yesterday about halfway through my day, I realized I’d made a mistake and had worn too casual clothing. Not because there’s some ridiculous building dress code or because I was going to not be able to complete my work (indeed, I was physically very comfortable). But the location and clothing didn’t end up feeling compatible, and it was like hearing a low-pitched whine all day.

Physical comfort in clothing is a high priority for me. I have an autoimmune itch disorder and my skin also will hive due to heat and pressure. So I will wear leggings or Betabrand yoga dress pants week in and week out, very happily. I’m always looking for my next favorite dress. I am pretty happy with my clothes most of the time, and I am able to do the things I need to do when in them (aka, transition from work to parenting seamlessly). It seems like it would follow that the more comfortable the clothing, the more comfortable I am.

Why isn’t this the case?

Clothing acts as a kind of visual resonance or dissonance. There’s clothing that’s accepted and expected on social and economic strata. There’s clothing that represses your sense of self and clothing that enhances your sense of self. Traditionally, all of those things can be in conflict and to optimize for harmony can result in a very narrow range of clothing any person may end up wearing. I’m relieved we’re moving away from this increasingly.

However, I still think it’s important to acknowledge how clothing can be both costume and disguise and naked honesty. Put another way, investment of self in clothing is deeply personal, and means many different things. Power suit. Dress for the job you want. Clothes make the man. Lightskirt. Clothes let you explore identities. Someone who gets the job done, someone who is quirky, someone who is ultra feminine (or ultra masculine), someone who eschews gender entirely. Clothes let you assume identities, becoming a goth or a queen and all the shades in between.

On the face of it, it is truly absurd that anyone would be in danger for what they wear. It is laughable to think that a type of clothing has the power to change the emotional resilience of the person wearing them. But it’s not laughable and it’s not absurd, because people do get beaten to death for wearing something that causes too great a dissonance for the observer. People do feel enormous shame for how they feel in the clothes they are sometimes made to wear, because of their job, or their role in society, or their gender. The reality of our culture (and many around the world) is that clothes cost us something and clothes earn us something. They can be restrictive and destructive, and they can be a nod and a wink to buy entry.

My stupid dog joggers (which I love, I do not think they’re stupid, they have pockets) worn within the parameters of my own life are low stakes. Brushing the floor, low. I lose nothing in terms of status or earning power or anything by wearing them, in any part of my life. No one will take away my children, and I am in no physical danger. Even with that context, I still found myself turned around by wearing them where my habits dictate other clothing.

It puts into perspective the bravery of someone who dons a garment that is fully outside their socially acceptable parameter in order to align more perfectly with their sense of self. It’s astonishing.

It’s interesting, because it’s easy to say “ah well a perfect world is one where clothes have no meaning at all, then.” But I don’t know that’s the case. I think it matters when someone joins a social group through clothing (for them, intrinsically). There is a frisson of joy in moonlighting in some other space, whether it’s Halloween or getting gussied up for a fancy evening out (which is about my extent of moonlighting through clothing). In looking and feeling your best, or your funniest, or your silliest. We have big barriers for many people who would live happier lives in other clothes, and those I think we should continue to work to remove. But I think it would be nice to preserve the relief and delight in stepping into those clothes. In belonging.

Also to take a fairly sharp left for a moment, I think if you go to the Met Gala you should go in costume. Be cute another time. Wear that traditional tux the next day to dinner. It is literally a costume ball, and I’m disappointed in every single person who won’t go in theme. The end.

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