Aligning My Values with My Clothes

Aligning My Values with My Clothes

The other day I was sitting at one of the outside tables at Starbucks, sipping my hideously-overpriced iced tea lemonade as I mused on the crisis of the hour: my wardrobe. This had never been a problem before, but I had come to realize that clothes communicate quite a lot more than I’d originally thought. Prior to this epiphany, I’d figured that dressing well was largely an exercise in conforming to certain archetypes, thus allowing people to identify you as part of their tribe or not; by dressing to a certain standard, one thus cemented their status in the social hierarchy. I dislike hierarchy in general, and I find dressing to the so-called “standard” to be confusing. This is mostly because my knowledge of “the standard” is based on clothing dogma passed down as tradition. While I could use the intervention of an “expert” to impart a good set of style rules to memorize, this is not an effective learning style for me. I do much better with principles, and the overriding principle here is that I can communicate through the details of my personal grooming, which makes the idea of wearing “grown up clothes” less of an anxiety-ridden chore and more of an interesting design problem.

As some of you may know, I go to Starbucks every morning to meet friends and get my freelance ass out of bed every day on time. And because the particular Starbucks I go to is a friendly one, it’s become a test-bed for some of my social experiments. So for the past few days, I’ve been dressing up to see if it made any difference at all in how people interacted with me.

Instead of wearing my usual cat hair-covered black t-shirt and formless jeans, the clothes I chose were made from nice material, color-coordinated, and actually sized-right because I’d chucked everything that didn’t fit me well during the Great Closet Purge of June 9th, 2008. This leaves me with about 3.5 days of clothing before repetition becomes inevitable, which isn’t very much but makes for a clean start.

Next, I took care of the personal details such as fingernails, which I have tended to be loose with regarding length and condition. It occurred to me that the personal grooming I was doing was very much like edgework in computer graphics design, which is my term for how well one pays attention to the pixel-level details in how they alter the entire composition. Crisply-placed pixels, as opposed to the usual blops that Photoshop generates when left to its own devices, creates a subtle impression of hand-crafted quality. I wanted no less to apply to my face; I spent more than the usual time scanning for the stray beard hairs that had escaped the hum of my razor, inspected my nasal cavities under a flashlight to seek out and destroy errant nose hairs, and even subtly leveled the edge of my haircut with the razor’s heretofore unused beard trimmer attachment.

As a final step, I used the hair wax that my hair stylist, Kim, sold to me 3 years ago. Personally, I never could tell the difference with the wax on or off, so I tend not to use it since my hair is so short anyway. I was enormously surprised when my friend Erin, sitting outside at Starbucks, asked me what I’d been doing with my hair recently. I laughed and admitted that I’d combed it and used some wax; could she really tell the difference? She beamed with pride, and would have patted me on the head if that wouldn’t have destroyed the magical effect. I also received a few approving glances from the women barristas, who are used to seeing me in my slobwear, and that is enough to convince me that paying attention to how I look makes a difference. By paying attention to details, I am saying that I am a detail-oriented person and have things together. By selecting clothes based on quality of material, contrast, and cut, I’m also portraying what my standards and my tastes are because I am demonstrating that I’m paying attention, and not leaving my appearance to accident. That’s a principle I can get behind 100%.

So I’m totally convinced that paying attention to clothes makes a difference, and I can actually apply the same graphic design skills to the selection of clothing and accessories, manipulating proportion, line, shape, contrast, and color against the backdrop of what everyone else is wearing. It’s a very very interesting design challenge. What’s next is even more interesting: what do I want to say about myself and how do I say it through clothes?

In the interest of writing shorter posts, I’ll leave those questions for next time.


  1. Gabe 15 years ago

    Come on, lets see some pics of the new detail concerned David.

  2. Amit 15 years ago

    Someine said … Clothes maketh a man !

  3. Lore 15 years ago

    Very nice post. I’ve observed the same things. The problem is, that you have to do the whole procedure every day, just in case you meet someone important unexpectedly.
    The solution is, to do it for your own pleasure, to impress yourself every day. So, you become some sort of your own self fullfilling prophecy ;)

  4. Ross 15 years ago

    For years I and several others wore ties to the office because it set us apart from the slobs.  It was a university, and the subtle message was “we didn’t just slide into these jobs as undergrads”.  That meant a lot in a place where status was king.

    To this day, I wear a dress shirt with a collar and cuffs to the office every day except when the summer heat pushes me into polo shirts, for essentially the same reason as you: Not all communication is verbal.

  5. Rose 15 years ago

    Good for you! Professionalism is in the details. Even in this cowtown where 113 degree days toss clothing rules straight out the air conditioned window. (I have never seen so many ungroomed toes in flip-flops in my life!)
    My favorite most-improvement-for-the-buck is Crest white strips. Pop them in during your shower and people will notice. After the initial regiment, once a week and before client meetings will render your smile sparkly!

  6. Hayden Tompkins 15 years ago

    “cat hair-covered black t-shirt”

    I am so BUSTED, lol.

  7. atr 15 years ago

    they do say the suit that makes the man..

    people do judge and first impressions are $insert_whatever_proverb_here

    lasting impressions? a badass business card that makes them look at it twice.

    done and done.

  8. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Gabe: Heh, I’ll see if I can get some pics. But for the full effect, I’ll have to get some of the slobwear pictures for “before and after”.

    Lore: That’s an excellent solution! I have found that I enjoy the dressing up now that I know it actually EXPRESSES values that are important to me, instead of just shoving me into a category.

    Ross: That’s pretty awesome. I am picturing something like “Reservoir Dogs” via Italy :-)

    Rose: White strips in the shower…I LOVE IT
    !!! Checking out my toes now…yikes. I can visualize the effect being something like when Marc Andreesen was on the cover of Time with his gnarly long toenails.

    Hayden: Do I smell the birth of a new Flickr group? :-)

    atr: Heh, thanks for the perspective. Remind me to check out you business card next time I see ya.

  9. Isabelle 15 years ago

    great! I’m glad to hear you did this for yourself. One is his own personal “business” card ;) And really.. everytime I don’t bother about my appearance because I just have to do some quick things in the city (and I am lazy, don’t want to put time in it blabla) THEN ofcouuurse I meet some people I know (and often that I really don’t want to see at thàt moment).
    Always be prepared! Like already said, you feel yourself good then as well :)

    Some experimental info: in social psychology it has also been proven that people judge/look at other people in a more positive way when they appeal ‘normal looking’ or ‘attractive’ (in the broad sense) while people who have some aversive qualities like something strange with their face, a handicap, could be some small things will be evaluated less positive. So details matter! This also included the behaviour like gestures and voice (like speaking in a intelligible way).

  10. Amanda Himelein 15 years ago

    I just want to say that you may have, on average, the most interesting blog post titles of any of my subscribed feeds.

  11. Maggie 15 years ago

    The “What Not to Wear” folks on tv would be so proud of you!  Go Dave!

  12. Some Fool 15 years ago

    Me thinks you’re simpling trying to get a date. I hope it works out for you.

  13. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Isabelle: LOL, I love your perspective on this. What is coming to mind is that those details spring from what’s inside a person, so if one wants the details to really work for them, it’s a matter of those details reflecting something inside, not just being something on the surface. Gestures come to mind, for example. Although I suppose one could learn to act in such a way…I wonder if I should take acting lessons to just calibrate my innards with my outward appearance.

    Amanda: Thanks, I try! :-)

    Maggie: What Not to Wear is one of my favorite shows…I miss it since I canceled my basic cable (I still have ultra basic cable for the Internet package). I also have something of a crush on Stacey London ;-)

    Some Fool: You’re right to conclude that this is on my mind. However, my belief regarding attraction with women toward men is that it’s really who you are to them (the so-called total package), how confidently you naturally convey that, and that you can take care of yourself. Simple on the surface, but really hard if you don’t know who you are and what is important to you. This has kept my dating activity low, but the ones I’ve been on have been special because of that. Dressing up used to be something one had to “do” to be “socially acceptable” as far as I was concerned. Now I realize that not only can I communicate about myself, I am also showing that I care about the people I’m with, which I think is important.

  14. Emma 15 years ago

    Sorry—I’m still feeling 17-year-old-rebellious enough to think that people shouldn’t judge me based on my clothing.  That, if they really want to look down on me for what I’m wearing, rather than seeing me for the innately superior being that I would be discovered to be, if they’d simply get to know me, then it’s their loss!

    No, really— I honestly think that people who judge on that are wrong, at least 60% of the time, and so refuse to play the game.  Whatever I lose by making that choice, I’m more than willing to give up.

  15. Lea 15 years ago

    I think fashion has been given a misunderstood bad rap because of the general hierarchy and snobbishness that comes with it in the media, shaping public perception.

    Whether you’re conscious of it or not, clothing is a definite form of expression of self. I think, Dave, that while you’re still a “t-shirt and jeans guy” at heart, the extra details you’ve shown really reflect a newer, confident direction you have in your life. Bravo and yay!

    And I mean, we take care of how our websites look and understand that designs shapes perceptions—we all know as designers that great design help credibility. Why not ourselves with our clothing? Whatever way we decide to dress.

    And Emma, whether people “should” or “shouldn’t” judge based on clothing is moot. People have immediate perceptions they cannot psychologically control. Conscious or not, we pass judgment every day.

  16. Amit Patel 15 years ago

    [with apologies to Emma]

    Sorry—I’m still feeling 17-year-old-rebellious enough to think that people shouldn’t judge my web site based on its appearance.  If they really want to look down on it for its lack of margins, poor use of whitespace, typos, bad grammar, and tacky colors, rather than seeing it for the innately superior content, then it’s their loss!

    No, really— I honestly think that people who judge on that are wrong, at least 60% of the time, and so refuse to play the game.  Whatever I lose by making that choice, I’m more than willing to give up. Jakob Nielsen rules!

    [end silliness ;) ]

  17. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Emma: I know how ya feel, I was much the same way in my outlook: people should make the effort to get to know people dang it! The truth though is that we make snap judgments all the time about who we want to talk to, and sometimes it looks like someone is so “different” than us that it’s hard to muster the energy and risk being disappointed. Clothes can go a long way to helping someone feel comfortable enough to talk to you, so I’m now thinking of clothes as a means to express my approachability and interests as an INVITATION. Also, as I am a rather discerning person and would like to date discerning women of a particular type, it’s important for me to reflect what I myself am looking for. It’s only fair, I think. So while I agree with your approach in principle (and practice “reductionist filtering” with my own professional work to filter out less desirable clients), I am not above helping people form the right impression of me on first glance. I’m not conforming to standard. I’m creating my own.

  18. Maxine 15 years ago

    I decided to change the way I dress a couple of month ago to see if it would improve my interactions with other people. So i ditched my comfy shapeless t shirts, cheap black work trousers and flat granny shoes for skirts, colourful tops and high heels. I also wear at least one item of accessory every day. I have since been getting compliments from people. I dont know if its because my dress sense was so bad before that this seems like a great improvement or what:-) regardless I feel more confident socially and thats what matters most:-) Great article David:-)
    X M

  19. Don 15 years ago

    I dress like I do so people DON’T know who I am. That helps ME determine what kind of person you are better than anything.

  20. Pat 15 years ago

    Re: Conforming or rebelling

    Dressing well is not about buying $800 designer jackets, the latest colours and changing your hairstyle every time Beckham does. To me, that kind of over-the-top fashion is rubbish.

    I mean really, how can you justify spending $400 on a pair of jeans, when it was manufactured by a labourer earning $4 a day? With 60 cents of raw materials? With some bastard businessman or snobby “artist” pocketing millions of dollars for simply being arrogant enough to charge that much?

    What matters to me is simply dressing well. Clean shirts. Pants without holes in the knees. Brush your teeth, comb your hair, shower every day.

    In social situations, people get the impression that you’re safe and pleasant to be around. In business situations, people get the impression that you can be trusted to do a good job.

    A $1,200 handbag just tells them that you have to waste money to support your weak ego. And are incapable of holding your own set of principles – thus you need the Fashion Channel to tell you how to dress. Plus, that particular bag is SO yesterday, so mission failed.

    Dress well, that’s all.

  21. Aboslutly love it. I decided to change the way I dress a couple of month ago to see if it would improve my interactions with other people. So i ditched my comfy shapeless t shirts, cheap black work trousers and flat granny shoes for skirts, colourful tops and high heels. I also wear at least one item of accessory every day. Thanks for sharing with us.

  22. Simon 14 years ago

    Yeah this is really interesting. I’ve always thought fashion was for irrational, emotional women, but now I see that it’s really all about logical men! This should convince the missus to let me buy a “Firetrap” jacket that I’ve had my eye on for a while…