In Annie they sang, “you’re never fully dressed without a smile.” I guess by those standards I’m naked.
Since the pandemic began – what my daughter and her boyfriend call “the ‘rona” – I have kind of let myself go. In the beginning, communications about the whole COVID thing were fast and furious, and I was sitting at my dining room table trying my best to keep up while my newly expanded family swirled around me. You can get a flavor for that moment in time in my earlier blog post.
It was 7 days a week, 12-plus hours a day, for a while – a few weeks at least. And I was focused on the work, plain and simple. Hunched over my laptop like a gargoyle atop Notre Dame, ultimately consigned to a bunker I built in my basement. (Public gratitude to my wife and kids for their help excavating.)
I didn’t much care what I looked like. I was shaving every three or four days. I had doubled down on T-shirts and basketball shorts. I didn’t wear socks for a month, maybe more. I was working on a Miami Beach mullet: long and curly in the back, thin and desperate on top. I still am.
Many of my colleagues showed up in Zoom meetings looking like they did the last time I saw them in person: scrubbed, coiffed, wearing a button-down shirt and a smile. The women had earrings on, and – I think – makeup. I was wearing commemorative T-shirts from band and percussion shows my kids had performed in high school. One day I had to record a Zoom meeting with my CEO and I put on a golf shirt, my first collared shirt in well over a month!
By the way, can we applaud Zoom for a moment? They are the Kleenex of online meeting platforms. You know when you were a kid and your mom said, “Can you hand me a Kleenex?” and you were a little shit and you said, “It’s a TISSUE, Mom. Jeeeez!” Because Kleenex was so powerful a brand they became synonymous with the actual item. Like Xeroxing something means copying it. I didn’t know there was a generic word for Band Aids until I was an adult; I still can't remember what it is - they're Band Aids. And of course, we all “Google” questions on the web whether we use Bing or Yahoo or whateverthehell.
Webex and GoToMeeting were first. Microsoft launched Teams (which is what my company uses, and it’s fine). But Zoom somehow caught lightning in a bottle and, when the ‘rona hit and changed everything, all of a sudden it was “Zoom meetings” and “Zoom happy hours.” Good for you, Zoom. Even when you had data security problems, you held onto that top rung like a champ.
Anyway, I guess I was not concerned that my lack of looking professional had any bearing on my real or perceived professionalism. Once you get to be my age, you kind of figure it’s “What you see is what you get.” If it’s not good enough, there’s not a lot either of us can do about it now. But ironically, I come from a legacy of never wearing anything less than a button-down, collared shirt to work. And I was not a fan of wearing jeans, even on Fridays in summertime. Until that became the policy, and all of a sudden the old crotchety guy was very much a fan of Jeans Fridays.
But it was the same thing that drove my decline at home: When Jeans Fridays started, what I enjoyed more than anything was that moment in the morning when I didn’t have to think, didn’t have to plan, didn’t have to worry, “What kind of a week has it been? Are those pants going to be comfy?” Plus wearing jeans opened up a new category of acceptable casual footwear. Not Birkenstocks or anything like that, but not black oxfords, like I was used to!
That same inherent laziness is what drove my slow, steady sartorial decline at home: Wake up, pee, shower, brush my teeth, put on deodorant, and slip into my most comfortable shorts, sweats and T-shirts, ready to do God’s work. No stray thoughts or concerns to slow my mind or distract me from the great questions of our time, like, "Why can I go nine hours without stopping to eat on a Tuesday, but not more than 25 minutes on a Saturday??"
By the time I saw the article in the online edition of the New York Times, I had started to feel a little self-conscious. After all it’s been four months now. I look like…if Tom Hanks in Castaway ate a big, fat guy.
The article is titled, “The video call is starting. Time to put on your Zoom shirt.” And boy, did I feel stupid.
It’s a great read, even if you’re not an idiot like me. Apparently smart people everywhere have been doing the same thing as me (well, almost) and dressing for comfort and productivity, but they have one nice shirt (some people have multiple ones) hanging just out of view that they can don quickly before sliding open the little trap door on their webcam. To the world, they are polished and put-together. Meanwhile they have an ACDC concert T-shirt from 1978 under the button-down, and they’re not wearing pants.
Some tricky folks apparently have a couple different Zoom shirts standing by for different levels of formality. Some have a jacket, too, but according to the article there’s a subculture of haters out there who insist that this is overkill and a sure-fire “tell” that you’re preening only when the little red light is on. No one is quarantining in a blazer – OK, Boomer?
So this has me thinking, and considering an experiment of sorts. I really haven’t noticed any blowback from my casual approach to work-from-home clothes. But that could either be an absence of blowback or me being totally oblivious – either is possible; one, sadly, is likely. I do get some mileage from the webcam fisheye view of my basement, because it gives me an opportunity to crack wise about my family and overall living situation. Self-deprecating humor is my superpower. While many of my colleagues have lovely homes sprawling behind them, spare rooms and sun porches and one guy ensconced in his very own boat house on a lake, I kind of like being the rebel of the bunch. Like Deadpool at an X-Men convention: I’ve earned the right to mingle, but I’m not really in the club, and I’m good with that.
I don’t have a fundamental problem with hanging a Zoom shirt in my basement and engaging in a social experiment with it. But what is the goal? What are the stakes? What am I looking for to decide if it’s even worth it to bother? Remember, I confessed I’m motivated by the absolute lack of energy to make even the slightest clothing decision in the mornings. So why would I voluntarily agree to costume changes, multiple times a day, like Cher at the Oscars?
I’m not saying I can’t do it, or won’t. I’m just saying I want to know what I will get for the effort.
One of the guys interviewed for the Times article wore the same shirt for 70 days straight, waiting for someone to notice. No one did – or if they did, they didn’t say anything to him. That would be torture for me. I don’t know that I could actually pay attention in a meeting if I was wondering all the time, “I’ve worn this shirt all week – don’t they notice? Don’t they care? Why am I on camera at all?” That would drive me nuts.
I mean, I notice what other people are wearing. I don’t say anything about it, of course, but I take notice. A lot of my colleagues, including my boss, wear layers. Like a T-shirt or collared shirt with a pullover. Usually a quarter- or half-zip. Very clean and casual, very preppy. I can’t really pull off that look. I mean I can wear those things, but I give off more of a Sopranos vibe than a “let’s meet in the men’s grill after 18 holes” vibe.
And some definitely do the “I’m going to look like I’m at work even though you can see my laundry hanging over the door behind me” thing. I used to think, “Good for you! You’re not afraid to commit.” But now, since the article, I wonder: Am I being played? When we disconnect from our call, are they stripping off the powder blue oxford button-down and sitting in a stained muscle shirt?
I don’t know about you, but just thinking about that kind of ruins it for me. Not just because I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out myself. Well…that too. But also because I value integrity. I always taught my kids to be comfortable with who they are, be confident in their self-worth. Of course, I also taught them to be articulate and polite and not to get tattoos anyplace visible, just in case they want to get a job someday. (One heard me, one didn’t; but the good news is, the one who didn’t heed that advice is grooming himself for a job in which tattoos are prerequisite.)
Aren’t those things, the little niceties of business etiquette, still a constant? Just because I am in my basement and have to trudge upstairs to pee and pet the cat, why should I be any less committed to looking the part when the curtain rises?
It’s an interesting question. One I will ponder, unshaven and sockless, over the long holiday weekend.