We use clothes to communicate. The thing is, we don’t know what we’re talking about.
A lot of communication between people is of the non-verbal kind. And so, so many things go into this category: from the tone of your voice and your expression to the way you present yourself overall. Clothes factor into it as well.
And many people have written about it extensively, both about the cultural significance of the dress, and the ways to use clothes effectively to achieve certain goals. The problem is, I don’t trust people from the latter group. I’ve never been convinced by the notion that navy will somehow make you more trustworthy, or that the way you tie your tie says something about your personality. This language of clothes is infuriatingly imprecise and one thing can mean too many things for different people to make such statements with confidence. More often than not, the only thing a full windsor communicates is that it’s the one knot you’ve been taught by your dad.
What wearing certain clothes can say about you, is your position in social hierarchy. But even that is getting more and more fuzzy, as the dress codes relax and the fact you wear nice suits made of fine fabrics no longer clearly signifies how successful you are. You may just as well be just a menswear enthusiast and go to and from work by bus, and yet look better than people making your year’s salary in a week or two. There’s also this nugget of internet wisdom to think about: “Men in suits look really successful until you find out they work for the men in T-shirts and jeans”.
It doesn’t mean clothes don’t convey some kind of message. Human cultures attached significance and symbolic meaning to various things, including those we wear. And those things shouldn’t really be ignored, I believe – they show that you can fit in, and often that you respect other people by understanding not everything is about you. That’s why you’ll wear dark suit and tie to a funeral, and not a T-shirt with a cat and questionably witty caption on it. That’s why you’ll try to dress appropriately to a job interview: suit and tie where it’s required, like a bank or corporation, and in a more relaxed way for a creative agency or an IT firm.
And because of this added cultural significance there’s sometimes a little PR disaster in the media; recently a Polish brand Reseved pulled a military-inspired shirt from their shops after rather strong reactions it provoked. Or to be more precise: the whole outfit from the lookbook was found questionable. See, khaki military shirt, black trousers, black shiny military boots – all worn by a model with a shaved head. That was enough to trigger some connotations with Nazi SA uniforms. Some argued the Asian tiger and American chevron on the shirt made those complaints invalid, but as I said: this is not a precise language. Because of that you want to be extra careful when you try to speak it.
To get closer to classic menswear: take the pinstripe suit. Also called a “power suit”, because it’s supposed to radiate power and confidence, and is a vital part of the iconic 80’s Wall Street look. And I can perfectly understand how someone might think of it as an attribute of a successful guy who knows what he’s doing. And I can also understand how someone might feel like it’s an easy way to distinguish people who are selfish and narcissistic. Patricks Batemans of the world, if you will.
That’s why I enjoy nice clothes for their aesthetics. I like the simple pleasure of wearing a well-cut garment made of a nice fabric. I appreciate the craft. Trying to build your image with clothes and tell people things about yourself with them is a difficult, treacherous path, and you’re bound to be misunderstood sometimes. It’s better when they come second, not first; they are there for you, not the other way around.