What to Wear

Image: The National Archives UK
Image: The National Archives UK

Buying clothing can be fun: the visceral thrill of all the new colors and textures; the gratification of clerks catering to your whims; the way a garment can make you feel like a different person.

Beyond this, clothing is a drag. It’s dissatisfying, as garments rarely look as good in your closet as they do on display. It’s also time-intensive: trying to get one’s pants and shirt to “work” together; burrowing through closets in search of some lost item; or, worrying about whether one’s wardrobe might appear dated.

Cultural norms make this even more inconvenient. We find ourselves contemplating whether we’re under or overdressed, and forced to comply with stifling office dress codes. For a species that considers itself evolved, we sure do worry a lot about inconsequential details.

Clothing is not a representation of one’s success, professionalism, or capability; yet, we fail to treat garments for what they are: a layer of protection from the elements. Perhaps it’s time for us to align our behavior with what we all intrinsically know.

Yes, people do make assumptions based on our visual presentation. This doesn’t need to make us succumb to social pressures. Instead, we simply have to seek out clothing that is deliberately plain and unremarkable. By this, I mean basic garments that are as timeless as possible. Doing so will allow you to blend, and when it comes to dress, this is a good thing. (Should you wish to stand out from the crowd, consider doing so with your intellect, actions, or humor.)

By treating clothing simply for what it is, you are one step closer to eliminating a substantial chunk of mundanity from your life. This will subsequently open up time for more interesting and useful pursuits. It will also keep your closets from overflowing with embarrassing fashion missteps.


Some (e.g. police officers) are forced to wear uniforms due to their work. This probably won’t change, but they can apply the above when away from work.


    1. Not sad at all; in fact, it’s quite liberating.

      People can certainly treat clothing as a form of expression, but this isn’t its primary purpose.

      As for me? I’d rather have my thoughts and ideas to represent who I am than expect for Calvin Klein to do it for me.

    1. You keep wearing them–particularly if they make you happy. Some people really enjoy clothing, and I don’t think those folks should necessarily change anything.

      Others don’t find as much pleasure in it. For them, this method could make things a lot easier.

  1. Can I make my own clothes out of animals without harming them in any way? Or out of the byproducts from the pulp and paper industry? Do you have any advise for making uniforms out of waste?

  2. We fail to treat programming for what it is: a way to automate tasks. It shouldn’t be fun or enjoyable—it should just get things done. I feel like this is what you’re saying, but with regards to clothing, which I find silly. Until we can plug directly into a person’s mind, physical appearance will always be a first impression and therefore important. Also, I have no idea why this was posted to HN.

    1. Yes, we operate on visual information first, but that only lasts for a moment. I’ve met plenty of well dressed people who negated the value of any first impressions, the moment they opened their mouths.

  3. You could wear.. you know.. _wool_ without harming animals. Maybe you could remove some mundanity from your life by not feeling embarrassed about your past choices? You are being so negative about all of this, why not just enjoy the options that you’ve been given? Calvin Klein makes some beautiful clothing.

    Dress well. Look good. Radiate your personality!

    1. It’s funny that you feel this is negative. I feel very good about it. By not worrying about clothing I save time for things that are dramatically more interesting and fulfilling. This makes me very happy.

      (It’s a little like learning that I’ll never have to do the dishes again, and can take this saved time to read a wonderful book instead.)

  4. Interesting post. Have you heard of Massimo Vignelli’s black suits. Read more about it here: http://www.goodlifer.com/2009/05/fashion-and-identity/

    “…The epitome of this could very well be design guru Massimo Vignelli’s all-black ensemble. The Vignelli clothing line was created in 1991; in Design is one, Massimo talks about why. “One day I realized that all my suits were obsolete. I started to look for alternatives, but discovered none. So I decided that I would not be a fashion victim any longer. We have a motto: “If you can’t find it, design it” So I went to the office and we started to design and manufacture a line of clothing that follows the body rather than fashion. The task of design is to solve problems; that of fashion is to create them.” He goes on to say that they wear the clothing all the time and “for the last fifteen years, we have received nothing but appreciation.” Perhaps this is the ultimate statement, foregoing visual embellishment in favor of simplicity and sanity.”

    1. Brilliant stuff! I love the notion of garments that could be worn for a long period of time, without being locked into any particular style. Thanks for sharing the link!

  5. This may sound harsh, but it’s obvious a dude wrote this. And despite me being a woman, I’m not a fashionista. To me, clothes do serve the general purpose of keeping our bodies safe(r) from the elements. Beyond that though is the fact that clothes are art. The colors. The styles. The way they give the illusion of a change in body form. Clothes are just another way to use a utilitarian item and add beauty. If we made every utilitarian item the same in design, form, and color, think of just how boring the world would be. I just wonder at what point do minimalists give up the idea of making all the “stuff” neutral/the same in order for the human race to start judging a person solely by their character and just learn to live with the fact that everyone is unique and look past the amount/style/designs of others.

  6. Eliminate a chunk of mundanity from your life by taking an outlet for creative expression and making it mundane? I don’t quite follow your logic.

    Sounds more like a failure of imagination on your part: essentially you argue that personal style must either be pure function or pure fashion. In reality it is much more complex and interesting than this.

    1. Personal style isn’t really that important. It also isn’t a particularly notable outlet for creative expression. Matching one’s socks to pants is hardly writing a great novel.

  7. It seems that this still applies here: Thou shalt never touch peoples right to splash on clothes.
    The truth is that clothing is very powerful and I believe the reason for that is, that we have been conditioned into being superficial. I agree that we should start learning to see past that again.
    Nice new design by the way ;-)

    1. I agree. It is a rather sensitive topic, as it’s one that people feel they have a personal stake in.

      Clothing is powerful—even more so when we consider the effects of its production. The desire to keep up with fashion comes with a lot of waste. This results in a heavy societal price tag.

      Thanks for your feedback on the new site. We’re quite happy with it too!

  8. There you go again with the absolutes. Either you’re writing a great novel or wasting your time? Really? Life is so much richer than that. And there’s living proof: Tom Wolfe, for example, wrote (many) great novels and somehow simultaneously managed to develop his own (quirky and endearing) sense of personal style. Is it important? Who cares! Does he enjoy it? It would seem so. Did it keep him from finishing Bonfire of the Vanities? Evidently not.

    If you can’t manage to do great things and decide what to wear at the same time, I’m not sure giving up choice in clothing will help you.

    1. I’m not speaking in absolutes. I’m just responding to your comment, and pointing out that clothing selection isn’t really that significant a form of creative expression.

      If you love clothing, who am I to stand in your way? For those of us who don’t think clothing isn’t that important, it’s reasonable to “hack” it, so that it’s less of a burden.

  9. Actually, Eric, you *are* speaking in absolutes, when you say things like “clothing *is* a drag,” “it’s dissatisfying,” and “we find ourselves,” grandly speaking for everyone everywhere. I get your point – and sure, who hasn’t felt like that from time to time, or chosen to go with ‘systems’ like Steve Jobs’ designer turtlenecks? But your piece started with sweeping generalizations that you present as axiomatic. If you meant “*I* find clothing a drag and dissatisfying, and *I* find *myself*….” then that’s fine, but leave me out of it. :)

  10. I’ve been fighting this war since I was a teen. I never felt clothing should be used to develop a full representation of the character, professionalism, or success of a person. Good take on clothing. My one disagreement is the comment on “doing so will help you blend”. People recognize when you are “out of the social uniform”. But if you are capable with ignoring others opinions, criticism, and are in a position were going against the social ideals of doesn’t harm you financially. Then you might truly be happy in disregarding the frivolous purposes of clothing.

  11. It’s best to let everyone approach this idea individually, from where they are now. Recently I took 5 – 30 gallon garbage bags of clothes/shoes/etc. to the homeless shelter and my wardrobe makes me feel much better; it’s simple and functional. I prefer a lot of function from little clothes. Others prefer simplicity in other ways we may over-indulge. It’s best if we all focus on inspiring others in a positive way while letting others do the same. Express yourself, change the world for the better, live and let live.

    1. Definitely. That said, I sort of suspect they will.

      I write emphatically, as I think it makes for a more interesting argument. What folks choose to do, is up to them.

      Some will agree with these perspectives; others will move on. Either is fine. I just like having a venue to toss out this stuff for consideration.

  12. I was directed to this post by a reader of my blog, One Dress Protest. What I find most interesting is not your article but some of the comments rather. Women assume this is a distinctively male perspective, but I just chose to wear one, incredibly simple, black dress every day for one year (year ended this past January) in protest of many semi-forced cultural norms/expectations. While I do understand clothing can be expressive and artistic, I feel that a mass produced clothing item that had little thought put into its sourcing can hardly be art. I was also protesting consumerism and the sustainability (or lack-there-of) of the fashion industry, among pursuing other personal goals for my year in one dress. But while I wouldn’t prescribe it for others, or say that it is what anyone SHOULD do… I did find myself aligning personally with some of the reasons you share for a simple practical wardrobe. A most liberating thing was that I mattered for what I brought to a space or gathering for reasons other than how cute my attire was. Even if that usually passed after the initial entrance, I still appreciated that it wasn’t even on the table for consideration or discussion. First impressions had to be based on other factors. I’ll also say I do think this is far more challenging a task for a woman to embark upon… men can get away with simple and redundant far easier without being noticed.

    1. You point to something important in the “creative expression” argument. Some do truly creative things when it comes to their clothing. They scour vintage clothing shops, find interesting ways to match things, and really love the process of doing so.

      As you point out, though, few of us take that time. Instead, we drop by the Banana Republic and align our wardrobe with what their designers tell us to wear. This is a fool’s errand, and in no way creative.

      I’m also happy that you mentioned the sustainability consideration. This is key to all of the thinking around Deliberatism. The problem isn’t with stuff, it’s with too much stuff (and stuff that’s badly or unethically made).

      I’m glad you took the time to pop in and comment. :-)

  13. @Kristy Powell- I highly commend you for your project. However, you did incorporate personal style. The dress itself had a style along with the items you paired it with. Also, you mention that first impressions weren’t made based on your clothes. Just curious if you asked people or based this on people not mentioning anything about the way you dressed. I’m interested in how you came to that conclusion.
    In my opinion, as long as we are all wearing clothes, people will care. Even the plainest clothes have a style to them. Unless people all plan on becoming carbon copies of one another, I don’t foresee much changing in the clothing department.

  14. Kristy, the last time I checked, black dresses were a pretty stylish choice for art world types. I know a gallery director who wears a black dress every day, without any agenda. While I’m sure your “project” had a dramatic effect on the profits of Prada and Chanel, may I suggest that it would have been more effective to dress in an outfit that overtly challenged consumerism and sustainability. Like a hemp jumpsuit–similar to the ones they wore on the show “Lost”. Didn’t want to look like a dork? I didn’t think so.

    Eric, the outfit you have come up with (I know it is on another post, forgive me) is jeans, black t-shirt and grey hoodie. This is the kind of thing the IT guys in my workplace wear all the time. In fact, it’s a
    fairly stylish fashion choice for males, 20-40 across the world. Whether you like to admit it, you have kicked style out the front door to have it creep in the back.

    Megyn, you’re right. There’s a good book called “Homo Aestheticus” which starts off describing how dressing up (“making special”) is an important part of African life. Africans aren’t showing off by
    wearing beautiful, colourful dresses or having impeccably pressed shirts and highly polished shoes. It is part of a way of expressing civility that goes back to tribal culture. It shows you respect the world around you enough to make an effort. This used to be a part of European/N. American culture too, which might explain why I keep on hearing complaints from folks of an older generation, when they go to a nice restaurant and sit next to some young slob wearing a t-shirt and a ball cap.

    “Stifling office dress codes”? You’re kidding right? Frankly, I don’t want my co-worker showing up in shorts and flip-flops, no matter how nice his legs are. Again….civility.

  15. Funny… Your suggestion to dress everyone in plain colors so we all fit in is taken straight from the communism handbook, and communism as we all know might sound good in theory, but never works in practice. For many people clothing is a lot more than just a “drag”, it’s an expression of their personality/wit/mood/etc, and just b/c you don’t want to put in any thoughts into how you dress doesn’t mean others don’t. It’s like saying we should all eat bland food with all the necessary nutrients and minerals and just drink water, b/c why waste time cooking something unique and tasty when we can use that time to write a novel :)
    Why waste time having great sex with someone, when you can just masturbate in 5 min. and get back to writing your novel :)
    Minimalists crack me up!!!

  16. I was thinking that too, Zack. Nobody in China under the age of 80 would be caught dead in a blue Mao suit, in spite of all that time saved in not fretting about being fashionable or not searching for lost clothes.
    “By treating clothing simply for what it is, you are one step closer to eliminating a substantial chunk of mundanity from your life. This will subsequently open up time for more interesting and useful pursuits”
    Holy communist manifesto!
    “for what it is”–(this is your personal definition of clothes). “interesting and useful” (how about letting others deciding that for themselves?)

  17. In response to what todd has asked, clothes are indeed made from obvious sources. I remember I once bought a shirt that cliamed to be made from bamboo by products. I believe Allen Solly won’t make such a claim if it was not true or at least possible.

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