Why We Dress The Way We Do…No, Really

Member of the Tribe
Member of the Tribe

I know very few people who can honestly say that they don’t care what they wear. There’s the occasional professor, who’s perpetually preoccupied with higher thoughts; the farmer, who toils in the soil all day and simply needs clothes to cover his skin and not impede his movements; a scientist in the jungle, who simply needs pockets for her equipment and fabric that isn’t too hot.

Otherwise, we do care what we wear. We do have a reason for dressing the way we do, outside of occupational requirements, and we are probably not even aware of it.

We dress the way we do, anthropologists tell us, in order to show that we belong to, or aspire to belong to, a certain tribe. We dress in torn jeans, sneakers, and an ironic t-shirt in order to belong to the Hip Tribe. We sport a Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger to be preppy. Patagonia, we’re the rugged, outdoorsy type. If we’re going Goth, we’re going all black. Fashionista, any of the season’s latest trends or must-have accessories will do, at least for the moment.

And of course, all these tribes have their implied set of values: anti-establishment and non-traditional, probably liberal; establishment, traditional, perhaps conservative; individualistic, adventuresome. These are the values or character traits that we seek or seek to express to others when we dress a certain way. “I’m artistic.” “I’m reliable.” “I’m a risk taker.” “I’m sophisticated.”

(Of course, the occasion for which we’re dressing also plays a part. We dress more formally and more traditionally for funerals and weddings. If we don’t, we’re making a statement about our values or perspective on the event. If we agree to wear a tux to the Academy Awards and look like most everyone else, we’re acknowledging that the event is more important than our personal preference of how we’d like to dress. It may also let others know that we’re secure enough not to have to draw undue attention.)

We may think we’re “expressing our individuality” when we choose our clothes for a typical day, but we’re not. We’re applying to be a member of our tribe, or confirming our membership in it.

And as a side note, if more people would set aside “expressing their individuality” and take on “doing their job”, the world would be an infinitely better place, with just as much diversity.

Old Money is its own tribe. It has its own way of dressing, as I’ve noted in The Old Money Book. Unlike other tribes, this way of dressing is not an obvious expression of its values, as modesty and discretion are two of those values. (There is very little irony in Old Money.) But it is noticeable to other members of the tribe.

Dressing the part is, however, only a small part of the culture of Old Money. It will not cut any ice with the other members of the tribe absent manners, education, and a work ethic, just to name a few.

So dress as you please. Express yourself if you must. Just know what you’re really doing. And why.



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