The tradition on an employee’s last day of work at my previous company was to share comical memories of the departing colleague, usually at their expense. After two years with the company, my turn finally came for this ritual roasting and the topic of choice was my clothes. Specifically, that I wore the same thing every day. “I remember the first week he started here—“ my colleague began, “it was all nice sweaters and collared shirts. After that, a hoodie for two years straight!” To be technical, it was actually a hoodie for one and a half years, as I upgraded to two pullover sweaters that I rotated for the last six months (I did wash them by the way, and I wore clean shirts underneath). But the specifics didn’t matter, because my coworkers thought I was gross.
I had adopted what I thought was the “minimalist” uniform, which I mistook to mean wearing the exact same thing every day. There is a lot of cultural variability behind the uniform, including psychobabble about decision-making that attracts the tech and business crowds. Other promises entail less time spent worrying over what fits or what looks good and less money spent on buying new clothes to stay on-trend. In the zero waste community, the uniform takes on its own form and significance by its side-effect of minimizing textile waste taken to landfill by rejecting trends and mending old clothes instead of tossing them. The benefits had me sold. Donning my sweater(s) and jeans, I brushed off any concerns of looking the same every day, because the advocates of the uniform proclaim that others are too wrapped up in their own business to notice what you wear. But that clearly turned out to not be true for me! Or more likely I had misunderstood the uniform and failed to implement it properly. After leaving my last company, it was clear that my minimalist uniform, if you can call a couple of sweaters that, had failed. But having general faith in the concept and with starting a new job, I wanted to see where I went wrong and how a uniform should be put into practice.
For those unfamiliar with the pop-cultural baggage behind the uniform, you’ve missed the sensational articles examining why the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg wear the same thing every day (this will be the first and last post I mention those names anywhere on this blog). These two, out of many notable people, wear the same outfit daily in the name of “choice minimalism,” a concept that rests on the idea of decision fatigue. According to misquoted popular psychology, a clothing uniform promises to reduce fatigue that occurs when one’s mental willpower, a finite resource, is depleted when faced with too many decisions throughout the day. The saying goes that eliminating the unnecessary choice of what to wear frees up precious cognitive resources for more important decisions. Zuckerburg, who previously wore a grey t-shirt and jeans daily, explained his clothing choices in an interview stating “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.” But it turns out that decision fatigue doesn’t apply to wardrobes or most things self-proclaimed minimalists talk about, at all. The theory applies when there are seemingly infinite, unclear options, and people’s wardrobes don’t come close to those conditions because we edit choices before they ever make it into our closets. Experts weighing in on the uniform phenomenon conclude that wearing the exact same outfit every single day doesn’t somehow fortify someone’s cognitive reserve, nor improve decision making. In that case, what does the uniform achieve if not to manage decision fatigue?
While seeking to understand the adoption of uniforms by tech entrepreneurs, Nick Hobson, a psychologist from the University of Toronto, suggests that wearing identical or similar clothes every day provides partial structure and control over one’s external environment amid the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. No doubt is a founder’s life full of uncertainty, and it’s believable that wearing a uniform may offer some predictability and structure where it’s needed. This structure/control and uncertainty explanation can be applied outside of business, too. While looking for uniform advocates outside of tech, I found a community of people sharing their experiences using uniforms as a way to curb shopping addictions by using the constraints of a uniform as a way to exclude frivolous clothing expenditures that wouldn’t match an already established look. Other groups, less interested in clothing, use the structure a uniform offers to find one fit and style that works for their bodies to avoid the ambiguity of changing trends.
Looking further into uniform-wearers, outside of the ring of tech founders wearing ill-fitting jeans, I found that people weren’t literally wearing the same thing every day. Their uniform wasn’t just one or two clothes with multiple copies of each, but more of a general thematic rule that they used to include or exclude new clothing choices. This control mechanism, as noted earlier, applies to those trying to cut shopping habits or to the others trying to stick to flattering styles to avoid recreating a wardrobe every season. Even in the zero waste community, which incidentally is filled with well-dressed bloggers, people have edited their simple and often secondhand wardrobes in a way that meets a curated uniform-like theme rather than a closet full of identical clothes.
Many zero waste fashion bloggers maintain a desired stylistic theme to forego wasteful trends encouraged by fast fashion and instead curate a consistent look made of secondhand and quality pieces that last longer. This tactic curbs clothing consumption as a whole and by extension reduces textile waste that’s within someone’s ability to control. Fashion is one of the world’s most polluting industries, but at an individual level, people toss an average of 70 lbs of textiles each year. Waste generated in several streams beyond the consumer’s trash can suggests a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, but one’s closet provides, at a basic level, a tangible way to reduce or eliminate contributing to that waste. A uniform, which helps to say no to passing trends and prevents bulking a closet with poor quality clothes destined to fall apart, is just one mechanism to do so.
Wearing a uniform doesn’t have to mean wearing the same clothes every day, which is exactly what I fell victim to (even the best in the “choice minimalism” game at least have multiples of the same hoodie. I just had the one—no wonder why my coworkers thought I was gross!). A uniform also doesn’t have to mean following a purely functional selection of clothes to eliminate choices. Following several great style blogs with simple wardrobes, I see that a uniform should be many different clothes that align with certain colours, shapes, and fabrics that flatter the wearer. Someone could have a uniform out of two or three pieces of clothing or out of thirty, the number isn’t important, what matters is the curation of a personal style. Matched with infrequent purchases and responsibly sourced clothing (where possible and accessible), there’s a strong argument to give the uniform a second shot. Following this definition of a uniform, there’s also less likelihood of my coworkers thinking I’m unkempt.
Starting another job in September is a new opportunity to try curating a uniform. I don’t buy new clothes very often and I’ve shared my woes of finding men’s clothes secondhand in the past, but clearly not refreshing my closet in the last two years was at my own detriment. My new coworkers aren’t tainted by seeing me wear the same thing every day, so there’s still hope in fooling them into thinking I dress appropriately. I’ll check back in two years and see if my coworkers think otherwise.