Do clothes really make the person?

Haute couture? Fashion designer Pierre Balmain fitting gown on actress Ruth Ford. What does this dress tell us about its wearer? (Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Source: Library of Congress, in public domain)

Haute couture? Fashion designer Pierre Balmain fitting gown on actress Ruth Ford, 1947. What does this dress tell us about its wearer? (Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Source: Library of Congress, in public domain)

A half-century ago, President Dwight Eisenhower observed: “When you put on a uniform, there are certain inhibitions you accept.”

He should have known something about the subject after four decades as an Army officer. While military uniforms can be an obvious source at which to point in considering occupational attire, commentators have argued the significance of our work (and play) wardrobes for as long as we have been dressing.

Should we take them seriously? Are we really what we wear?

The most important distinction is separating the concepts of uniforms and costumes. Whether with family or out gathering information for an article or column, in the fall, winter and spring I wear hiking pants or blue jeans, long-sleeved cotton shirts and footwear appropriate for the weather.

In the summer I wear dress or hiking shorts, short sleeve seersucker or polo shirts, and sport sandals. These are my work uniforms.

People walking on Portand’s Congress St., though, are another matter.

Outside of obvious workplace attire, I see everything from Gothic Vamp to Janitor Chic, from Poindexter Contemporary to 70s Concert Babe (minus the bong). These are not uniforms. These are costumes. They are meant to express, to announce, and if need be, to annoy. But they don’t accomplish anything substantive except display wearer’s style, sometimes to our chagrin.

Interestingly, my times of wearing prescribed uniforms were slightly more flexible than the times I didn’t.

For example, in my Army years, there was a uniform for everything. While I didn’t have to give much thought to what I pulled from the closet every morning, within that day I may have worn three or four different getups; one for working out, one for formal inspection, one for administrative duties, and one for combat training.

Entering a theater of war was a whole other wardrobe, with some ad hoc mixed in.

Often there was not only an option of what to wear, but also several variations within one outfit. On any routine day, I’d easily see a dozen different uniforms. Not what you might expect in a purportedly lockstep organization.

This was not my experience with corporate life. As a senior executive, my company was supposedly “very relaxed” with dress. During the interview process I should have known that really meant “stonewall rigid.”

The “accepted attire” for work was business shirt with tie, sport trousers and dress shoes. Jackets and blazers were optional but “highly encouraged,” and thus often worn from the parking lot to the office in the morning, with the opposite occurring in the evening on departure.

Ties could be loosened while at one’s desk but the top button couldn’t be unfastened. (Say what?) If you wanted a cup of coffee or to visit the bathroom, you had to tighten up the knot. All of this, I was told, was “setting the right example.”

Dress Down Fridays weren’t much better. Golf shirts were allowed, along with wearing a regular shirt without a tie. This time, they relented on the top button lockdown and let my larynx go free. While short sleeves were permitted, rolling up the cuffs of long-sleeves was not.

Maybe these were the inhibitions Ike was talking about when one agrees to don a uniform. I shuddered to think of what friends of mine at the Fortune 500s had to endure.

A further Dress Down uniform inequity involved jeans and gender.

One Friday I came strolling into work wearing a sharp looking pair of new Levis. Within minutes, several managers warned me that ownership would blow a gasket to see their senior VP clad in dungarees.

Then I noticed the marketing manager strolling by my office in a long denim skirt, and I blurted out: “Wait! She’s wearing jeans, and she’s been here for years!” Not so, a half-dozen shaking heads responded in unison. That’s a skirt, boss. Skirts and dresses are not Dress Down, even if made of burlap.

Through the fog of my growing headache, I fired my next question: “Can I wear one?”

Eventually, when my company downsized and offered modest severance pay, I was at the front of the line, in jeans with my long sleeves rolled up. A few weeks later I returned to writing, editing and teaching – my first loves – and the rest was history, including my move to summer shorts and sandals.

An outdoor stroll during any season – including bundled up winter – will bear witness to the many public and private uniforms we’ve come to love. While not everyone wears them, all uniforms reflect the personality of a given group’s leadership, and Ike would be pleased to know: its inhibitions, too.

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Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.

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Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.