Benjamin Bestgen: Clothes maketh people

Benjamin Bestgen: Clothes maketh people

Benjamin Bestgen

“Travelling with an enormous piece of luggage only seems like a contradiction in terms to those who feel properly dressed for every occasion in T-shirt, jeans, and trainers,” writes Bernhard Roetzel. But have times changed and should smart casual or something worse prevail? We hope not. Benjamin Bestgen takes up the topic of clothes this week. See last week’s jurisprudential primer here.

Clothes maketh people is the title of an 1874 novella by Swiss writer Gottfried Keller (Kleider machen Leute in the original German). It’s about a young tailor who, despite his poverty, takes pride in his craft and appearance and wears magnificent clothes that he himself makes. As he enters a new town, people take one look and assume he is a nobleman. Out of embarrassment and confusion he fails to correct the misperception and gets stuck in it. Long story short, he attracts the attention of a high-born young lady, they fall in love and after some drama, all ends well.

Among other things, the story is about social perception and the role clothes play in how we view ourselves and how others might see us. Thanks to Covid-19, most of us have been stuck in our own homes for longer than ever anticipated. “Lockdown look” and “shabby chic” reign supreme. “Comfort clothes” and “athleisure wear” have for many replaced suits, dresses and any shoes that need regular polishing.

So what? If you are wealthy and work in Silicon Valley or No 10 Downing Street, you can even call your (very) casual look “power-dressing”. But maybe questions of appearance deserve more thought.

Philosophy of dress

Philosopher and art critic Shahidha Bari notes that philosophy has often unfairly ignored dress as a topic of analysis. She argues that in the way we dress, we present to the world an image of who we are, who we want to be and how we’d like to be perceived. The clothes and accessories we select say something about us, whether we just put them on without thinking much about it or choose our outfits deliberately. Clothes also tell us a lot about the society or profession we are in, its hierarchies, values, economy, customs, traditions and sensitivities. Clothes can include or exclude you from social groups, they can beautify or uglify you, serve as armour or disguise, make you stand out or help you blend into the background.

Oscar Wilde famously noted that it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. This flies in the face of those saying that physical appearance and banalities like clothes shouldn’t matter too much: we should look deeper and judge people on the merits of their work, their character, their words and deeds. That is certainly sage advice.

But Wilde has a point too: unless I know you very well, I will need some quality time, attention and experience with you before I can afford a reasoned judgement on your character. And unless your expert reputation or trustworthy tales of your competence and achievements precede you, I won’t have a clue how good your work is. But the way you dress, groom and carry yourself allows an attentive person a variety of inferences about you pretty quickly. Indeed, these initial aesthetic impressions contribute to the intuitive assessment of e.g. if I want to approach you at all, whether I might feel at ease with you, seek your opinion or want to entrust you with an important matter.

Instead of advocating for the superficial, Wilde was encouraging people to educate their eyes, refine their social judgement, look very closely and think carefully about what they see. For dandies, like for lawyers, detail really matters.

For instance, in Keller’s story, almost all townspeople mistake the tailor for a noble due to his dress and shy, quiet manner, which they interpret as the polite reserve of the upper echelons. But a local accountant (unfortunately not a lawyer) notices that the “nobleman’s” fingers are stabbed, cut and a bit rough, signs of somebody who routinely works with their hands and sharp objects. He is the first to guess correctly that not all is what it seems with the new arrival.

Are suits and dresses dead?

With working from home, more formal business attire, in its varieties for men and women, has increasingly come under fire. More and more people treat “business casual” like chinos, jeans, a somewhat nicer jumper or cardigan as standard office wear now. Some go even completely casual, in t-shirt and hoodie. Wearing trainers is no longer just for the gym.

But impression-management and being able to “look the part” of whatever you do remains important. If you lie in hospital and some unknown person suddenly starts fiddling with your IV drip, you’d worry if it wasn’t for the nurse’s uniform that makes you assume the person knows what they are doing and has your wellbeing in mind.

The same goes for law: a recruiter I know bemoaned that even junior lawyers, who are not established and still have much to prove, often show up to video interviews in a casual jumper, polo, a simple top or at best a shirt with no tie.

The signal that an overly casual appearance sends is that you care little for how others might feel about you. But you have to generate goodwill, respect and rapport with colleagues and clients, which means not caring is seldom an option. It also undervalues the fact that by dressing well and looking good, we help to create a positive atmosphere with the people we interact with. Most of us enjoy being with somebody who made the effort to look nice.

Dress well – look good – feel good

Aesthetic impressions are often instantaneous: we see, hear, taste, feel and smell before we have a chance to analyse what exactly we are perceiving. Business attire exists to project professionalism, tidiness, positive energy, gravitas, social maturity, reliability and competence. Suits and dresses are designed to help the wearer look their best (i.e. not just fine, ok or inoffensive) and generate a positive first impression (or at least avoid an immediate negative one). It also signals respect and appreciation for yourself, colleagues and clients: you made the effort to look competent, neat and approachable.

Many people complain that business suits are often boring, the dull navy, grey or charcoal uniform of the office-drone and wage-slave. Ties are too hot in summer, or in some climates all year round. Cufflinks or pocket-squares, hats, brooches, watches, rings, scarves, gloves or bracelets seem like unnecessary faff when getting dressed. Tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg or the late Steve Jobs (both not known for their good taste or social skills) tell people that spending mental energy on considering how to dress is frivolous. But there is a different way of looking at it: making the effort to look tidy, smell nice and dress well has social and psychological benefits. You will feel better and more confident when you know you look good. Your family, romantic interests, clients and co-workers, even strangers, will also notice and appreciate it, whether they expressly comment on it or not.

Indeed, more people these days seem to reflect on their dressing-down during the lockdown months and how it may have contributed negatively to their mental health, including lack of attraction to themselves and/or their partners. Philosophers have known for millennia that humans (even lawyers) need beauty, art and aesthetic pleasures, nice clothes being one such pleasure. And unlike your body, whose features can be hard or impossible to alter, dressing nicely is something you have more control over, can educate yourself about and experiment with.

With our well-being and comfort in mind, we may well see business attire in an increasingly broad palette of cuts, colours and patterns and probably fewer neckties. But claiming that it is frivolous to consider our dress and how to look and feel our best in or outside of work has a hint of the culturally and psychologically illiterate.

Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.

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