On human vanity

According to my wife, I’m an inveterate scruff. If I’m not working (when my imaginative wardrobe extends to the radical heights of a sober business suit and generally well-chosen tie) then I’m unlikely to get far past jeans and a T-shirt. This, apparently, not only consigns me to membership of that vast cohort of British men whose ill-fitting clothes serve only to accentuate their misshapen bodies, but also signals a serious lack of self-esteem.

Since I’m so frequently arraigned on these charges, and always found guilty, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to ponder on this “clothes maketh the man” hypothesis. Whilst it’s obvious to me that certain kinds of clothing symbolise status and authority, I should have thought that the status and the authority come first, and the clothes merely reflect or signal it. Maybe someone without status or authority could pretend to have those attributes by wearing the relevant clothes, but I don’t think the pretence would last very long. And I suspect the same applies to the self-esteem argument.

My wife is correct in her analysis in this respect: such self-assurance as I have does largely come from my “professional” life. I’ve been relatively successful and held posts near the top of organisations – no matter that they’ve mostly been tin-pot organisations in which the top is hardly a dizzying distance from the bottom. But put me in the setting of a party, or, God help me, a “networking opportunity”, and I’ll be the one silently observing from the edge of the room, and trying to delude myself that my lack of interaction is the consequence not of my social incompetence, but of the unworthy and boring nature of everyone else. Would a snappier, classier style of dress boost my self-confidence and have me up and circulating with sparkling repartee and irresistible social attraction? Well, I’m not convinced.

I was pondering on this on the tram the other day after the latest of my wife’s show-trials of my sartorial inadequacies (another inevitable guilty verdict, of course.) I was preparing a new defence along the lines that the issue was not my lack of self-esteem, but my wife’s excessive vanity. And her shallow superficiality in insisting that the surface presentation was more significant than the profound stirrings beneath. “I put it to you, madam, …witter…book…cover… witter…judge…don’t.”  Perry Mason was going to have to sharpen up his act once I had my witness on the stand.

Unfortunately this reverie was brought to an abrupt halt by the sudden realisation that I was myself indulging in the most outrageous book-cover-judgement scenario at that very moment. One of my fellow passengers was a middle-aged man of gargantuan proportions, whose clothing was so busy being heroic it had no time whatsoever to start thinking about being self-esteem enhancing. But what was so pathetic about this gentleman was that despite both rapidly balding and going grey, yet some straw-clutching idea had persuaded him to comb the few straggling hairs over his shining pate in an homage to Robert Robinson, and then to go the further step of dying these woebegone strands a fetching ginger. This seemed to me like offering the Chancellor a couple of quid to help out with the national debt. It wasn’t really getting to grips with the magnitude of the problem. “Sir, you’re a fat, sweating loser, and having grey hair and a distinguished balding head are actually your best assets. Don’t throw them away.”

I’m not proud of myself. Indeed I’m ashamed at my callous, judgemental and unsympathetic thoughts. But I do wonder about the motivation for those random attempts at self-improvement. Could it be vanity? Desperation? I don’t know, but that didn’t stop me from speculating. So although I’m still not convinced by my wife that clothes and appearance can as easily be cause as effect, I was given a sharp reminder that those same clothes and appearance remain one of our most powerful prejudices.

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3 thoughts on “On human vanity

  1. I’ve moved up from jeans and t-shirt to M&S Blue Harbour range ;-) Personally I wish I could just return with things I’ve liked and demand “Ten just like this” so I would have to spend no more time on the terrible business of buying clothes. Mrs SmallCasserole appears relatively unconcerned with my dress, although did once gang up with my mother to deride me for stating crumple linen was “smart”.

  2. I kind of agree with your comments regarding a work uniform and persona and the link between self-esteem and the choice of non-work clothing.

    Having worked in retail for the past 20 months and retrained as a personal stylist, I have seen the Blue Harbour and Per Una wearers; those that either have little interest in clothes/clothes shopping or haven’t a clue about how to make the best of their appearance. BH & PU, represent easy style, though I use the term style very loosely ;0)

    SmallCasserole : Wear whatever you feel comfortable in. If you find a favourite shirt, buy two so that when you have worn the first to death you have another to enjoy wearing. I *heart* men in linen suits. Very stylish.

    In the end, the truth is that women dress for other women. Any woman who looks to a man for approval about what they wear, has issues herself and those that badger their man about what they wear, do so, because they feel, his perceived poor appearance, reflects on them.

    What you wear might not change how you feel but it has a profound effect on how you are perceived by others. I’ve stopped wearing red to interviews as it’s perceived as agressive/threatening.

    I now wear navy or black and then up the ante once I’ve got the job.

    Shallow yes but highly effective.

  3. Sad, but true that one’s appearance is often criticised no matter how fashionable! There are websites that take great delight in ripping apart people’s (often questionable) fashion sense and not in a constructive way. Sadly, we all are victims of society’s focus on the immediate and superficial; whatever we wear will be cause for someone’s dismay. So I think the answer is fairly low-key/subtle/non-threatening look in the workplace and more casual/comfortable (but clean and neat) outside the office.

    My grandmother always said “Wear the dress, don’t let the clothes wear you.” Too often in the UK, I see the latter (particularly with the Bluewater set, who are obsessed with trends, rather than what suits them). Another pet peeve is middle-aged women dressing like teenagers. This look does them no favours, so why, why, why do I see this everywhere? And being a middle-aged woman myself (and really I hate the term) I am conscious of the need to dress elegantly, without looking matronly or clueless. Sigh. Dress to please yourself; at least that way we can look in the mirror without flinching. :)

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