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We Can't All Be Snappy Dressers


I’ve never been able to dress myself.

I know the singsong directions about which limb goes in which hole, that the tag goes on the inside of your shirt, and all those other Puritan rules. I get it, okay. But when people talking about clothing as an extension of power, of a critical element of self-expression, they lose me.

All because I’m the continued victim of dress code.

My scientific ally, Wikipedia, assures me that these rules are present in all societies — “built in rules or signals indicating the message being given by a person’s clothing and how it is worn.” A wise definition, anonymous updater. Yet for the majority of my life, clothing has been used as a personality bandit rather than re-enforcer: signifying that, well, my dress doesn’t reflect my supposedly glowing inner self.

At least that was the idea.

Before I entered the wonderfully open environment of Iowa City, I was for 13 years confined to Catholic school hallways. The experience wasn’t horrible, which is disappointing — traumatic Catholic school stories are an easy road to icebreaking sympathy. And despite the potentially sexy image of myself in a plaid uniform, we didn’t have those either.

And so, my dress for 13 years: khaki or black dress pants, topped by a usually plain polo shirt (sweaters required the polo underneath; nerdy always). Our not-quite-uniforms kept us in dress code purgatory — neither as boring and safe as those of old, but not as free as our supposedly anarchic public school contemporaries. Oh, we had precious jean days where we were let loose from the shackles of the non-denim, but after years of regularity, even my days off were bland.

Forays into trends were comically misguided. I had one overlarge Tommy Hilfiger shirt that likely wasn’t even legit (a factory outlet? Really parents?) and one later outfit combining JNCO Jeans with ever-so-spiffy “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” T-shirt. I ended up adopting the thrift store technique a few years before that became trendy too – thus always being on the unfortunate outside. High school was filled with too big hand-me-downs that I wore for years on end (baggy was cool maybe?). And by the time I got to college? I didn’t even own a pair of jeans. I probably had four T-shirts, all giveaways.

Fast-forward five years. I’m out of school, back into the job world. I gradually developed a bland if socially acceptable sense of style — a blend of trendiness and solid colors, all designed to fit well (I think). Yet now, again, insert the dreaded word: dress code. A symptom of the professional world. An inevitability.

So imagine my disappointed dread when my current job posted an updated dress code, essentially asking for the same drab attire as my pre-college days. And be disappointed, too, about my imagined future in any field save adventure journalism (which I likely just made up) – which will surely ask for an ill-fitting suit and pre-tied tie (I purposefully never learned how to knot one) on a formal whim.

Maybe these are just the complaints of a spoiled American individualist; maybe there’s room for gender-infused criticism about how I have it easy. I’ll accept both. But after years of being girlfriend-subjected to fashion TV shows and arguments, schooled by suited-up colleagues in my unfortunate mock trial stint, and currently bombarded by inane exclamations that Michelle Obama is “rewriting the rules” — perhaps it’s appropriate to mourn the inevitable: We’re stuck.

Pick a decade and gender and social class. Pick interests and friend circles. Pick geography, pick genetics. Dress follows. Perhaps there’s some quasi-activist statement to drop about being paper dolls, but I’m not feeling nearly snippy enough. All I’d ask is that whomever demands the code come over each morning and dress me themselves. I won’t make it weird; it’s the least you can do.

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