Thinking About Dressing Up While Planting Basil

6 minute read

Basil the plant, not Basil Exposition or Basil Rathbone, both worthy of mention but not of planting. It’s near the end of May and the early fall garden had grown neglected and weed filled like so many exciting adventures do. The broccoli and cauliflower all had gone to seed producing nary a morsel of salad material and the collards were thinking about bolting (if only they had longer legs). So Sunday morning we ripped everything out in preparation for an early summer garden which in the often hellish like climate we live in may rank near the top of the Top 10 foolhardy things I have done somewhere between going to grad school and attempting to read A Theory of Justice without clawing my eyes out.

Luckily, there are many things that we can grow here in June, July and August, most of which are imports from Africa, that other hellish continent outdone in heat, humidity and disaster only by Wichita Falls. Okra, Southern Peas and the hottest of peppers do ok in the heat along with luffa, a gourd that turns into both that thing you use to scrub your back and a rambling tangle of vines not unlike my blog posts. Having run out of steam on Monday (it was a holiday after all), I came home and planted several of these while considering the implications of the state of today’s masculine fashion a topic not usually considered while trying to remember where you actually planted that row of okra.

These sartorial thoughts were in fact not brought on by the dirt or the okra or the basil (though Basil Rathbone was a debonair, well dressed man) but instead by this article written in 2008 by an English professor who embarked on a year long experiment in dressing better. It is reasonably short, well with in Facebook attention span length and I recommend reading it. I ran into the article on Hacker News and the comments on the article are really what got me to thinking about the state of male fashion in general but certainly in the IT world I live in specifically.

Some history might be in order. At my very first tech job acquired at the ripe old age of 26, I think I went to work an entire year wearing a baseball cap each day. It was, as they say, my thing. Coworkers would see me out at night without one and not recognize me. I truly believed that people who sat at their computers all day pounding out keystrokes that turned into bits and bytes and other assorted digital representations could hardly be expected to get up and you know, comb their hair every day. Why would I? The computer didn’t care what I looked like. It wasn’t like I met with clients or even other coworkers some days. This attitude is representative of about 50% of the developer population as evidenced by the comments on Hacker News. Most developers look at dressing up in anything beyond jeans and a t-shirt as an exquisite waste of time at best and an affront to their very ability as developers at worst.

On the flip side, and it literally is a flip side, there seems to be no middle ground in the haberdashery of software developers, you have those who have come to the realization (the forty year old in me says “maturity” quietly while yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off my lawn) that well dressed men in general seem to have an easier time of it in some way. It may be the level of respect afforded a man who looks good in his clothes or some vestigial remembrance of experience in Catholic school with a overbearing principal but most people see a man in dress clothes with a degree of awe or at least deferential respect.

But leaving aside the IT world for a moment where a male dressed in a suit is often addressed with the question “How’d the interview go?” which can be dicey when he actually had an interview and doesn’t care enough about his current job not to change clothes or when his goldfish died and he just returned from the funeral. In general, men seem to be largely incapable of dressing for a given situation anymore, say the theater or the symphony. We run around dressed as somewhere slightly north of disheveled most of the time and then when the occasion warrants are unable to muster the ability or taste to dress to it. Saturday night, we went to the theater (no the “theat-ah” is it is New York or London but still, a play on a Saturday night) and we saw no fewer than three men dressed in short with untucked shirts. Yes it’s Dallas. Yes it’s a little hot. But do we have no shame, no sense of propriety? Once last year, at an opening of a Dallas Theater Center show, I saw a man, perhaps late twenties, dressed in some sort of Ralph Lauren Polo shorts so tight I that I knew his religion. When did we as men all become so lost in the world of taste and fashion?

Cary Grant once wrote an article for GQ in which he talked about how he dressed and gave the reader advice on what to do in the clothing department. He ended it like this:

Somewhere I read that Harvard’s Professor Archibald MacLeish was asked by a student about to graduate into our highly competitive world what advice he could give him. Professor MacLeish’s answer was, “Wear your Sunday suit every day.” The inference, of course, being that the suit would give the young man such confidence in seeking positions that he would eventually own many Sunday suits, for any and all days.

Splendid advice even by itself, but it’s probable that the professor meant not only his Sunday or best suit, but also his Sunday or best smile, disposition, and behavior—knowing that each begets the other. So wear, not only your clothes, but yourself, well, with confidence. Confidence, too, is in the middle of the road, being neither aggressiveness nor timidity. Pride of new knowledge—including knowledge of clothes—continually adds to self-confidence.

That so eloquently captures what it is to dress well. It is a feeling about oneself that says “I’m confident”. Wearing an untucked fishing shirt over shorts and dock siders to the theater says “I’m incapable of caring” or “I refuse to pretend like anything is important” or “This is the only set of clothes I can feel comfortable in”, statements which seem to be the norm and make me profoundly sad.

None of the above is to say I wish to return to the days when everyone wore a suit. Clearly that cat is out of the bag unskinned and running away at full speed. Still, I wish men had a better sense of when to be dressed nicely. Even if your wife dragged you out of the house when the Heat-Pacers game just started to go watch a ridiculous play on Enron (which is not a ridiculous play at all but just closed this weekend and thus requires no write up as you can’t go see it), pretend like the situation is more interesting and dress up a little. Who knows, you may find that just by taking the time to pretend you care increases the amount you do actually care.