Thinking About Dressing Up While Planting Basil

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.

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