It was just after lunch. I had been at a funeral that morning, and rather than go home and change, I just went back to work at the day shelter I ran at the time, planning to get some paperwork done. I was wearing a dark sports coat, slacks, and a white shirt. As was always the case since 2003, I wasn’t wearing a tie. I do hate ties.
I no sooner walked through the day room on my way to the office than the comments started. As someone who did front-line work in the homeless community, I wore a t-shirt and jeans most days. If I had a meeting planned, I would wear a polo shirt. The sports coat was for funerals and weddings and court.
But this day, I wore the sports coat and slacks to work, and folks didn’t know what to do. One guy came up to me and asked if I had caught a charge. I assured him I had not.
“No offense, Pastor Hugh. But the reason I ask”, he said, “is because when I have to go to court, my lawyer makes me wear clothes that aren’t mine, too.”
Once upon a time, I was in financial sales. And when I was, I was expected to wear a suit and tie to work. As a working-class kid who was making what seemed like an obscene amount of money, I bought good clothes and wore them well. I learned about the outlet stores where I could buy Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren suits for about half off. I owned three Hermes ties. I wore Gitman shirts. Clothes were important to me.
Later, I would walk away from that whole scene. I had an epiphany where I realized that I didn’t like who I had become and did not like who I had to pretend to be in order to do that work.
The money was nice, but it cost too much.
I sold my watches and ties and nice clothes. I wore scruffy sneakers and faded jeans and t-shirts and would only own one tie that I wore on occasions that absolutely required a tie, but I also learned that those are far fewer occasions than society generally believes requires ties.
Now, I mostly wear the same thing every day. I own at least 10 gray t-shirts. I don’t wear clothes with logos. I don’t want you to know anything about me because of what I wear. I don’t want you to judge my finances, my politics, my relationships. These days, I want my clothes to be a non-event.
For the last five years, I have gotten by on occasions requiring something more than my standard jeans and t-shirt, with two oxford cloth shirts, two blazers, and some khaki pants.
But then I went and lost more than 50 pounds. These days, when I put on my old clothes, I look like I must have driven there in the clown car.
To make matters worse, I am involved in some political work right now that requires me to occasionally attend “professional” meetings. Before it is said and done, I suspect I shall even have to buy a suit.
I feel all sorts of way about this.
In the first chapter of Walden, Henry Thoreau warned us to beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. Henry knew that clothes serve as a cover story of sorts. All too often, we use the quality of the clothes as a proxy for the quality of the wearer. Which is, frankly, classist as hell.
I never liked how when one of my guys who lived outside would get in trouble, my showing up in clean clothes and looking respectable made a difference in how they were treated. The most honest man I know wore dirty clothes home from work every day, and the biggest crook I have ever met wore a suit to work that cost more than my car is currently worth.
So, I am doing serious clothes shopping for the first time in over a decade. I think I can get by with blue oxford shirts and good khaki pants, and a blue blazer, for the most part. This is the South, after all, and we are admittedly less formal than other parts of the country. But then I need a blue or gray suit. And then that requires suit shoes. And I’m probably going to have to get at least two ties.