Much was made of President Obama’s choice on day one of his Presidency to doff his jacket in the Oval Office. When the White House unbuttoned its formal dress code, it was a symbolic move that reflected a larger shift to more casual business attire in culture. While some may feel the President’s showed a lack of respect for the office, for many Americans, doffing the jacket in office and rolling up shirt sleeves to get to work simply reflected their own experience.
For many people after all, it’s about whether you can get the job done, not what you’re wearing when you do it. That issue came into sharp relief yesterday, when some speakers at the 140 Conference held during Digital Capital Week in the District of Columbia came under criticism for not wearing pants.
I wish I could wear shorts more often around Washington. It’s now officially moved into “absurdly hot season” and wearing a suit is miserable. That said, there’s often no way around it. This week, for instance, I wore a suit to the Center for American Progress for the Law.gov workshop, since I knew I’d be meeting John Podesta and other lawyers who put stock in that kind of professionalism. I’ve pulled my suit on to go to the ballet at the Kennedy Center, to go to Congressional testimony or to attend a landmark event on community health data at the National Academy of Sciences.
That said, I wore linen shorts, sandals and a collared shirt to the Gov 2.0 day at Digital Capital Week, since it was damn hot, and that fit my vision of summer business casual in the District. And yesterday, at the 140 Conference, I wore jeans and an untucked dress shirt, since that fit the image of the tech journalist I am these days.
Mike Schaffer, a self-described social media strategist here in DC, focused on elevating the style of online communications professionals in public. Respectfully, I think he missed the point. In every situation above, what I wore mattered but, to my audience, was beside the point.
Peter Corbett may have worn shorts and a t-shirt, as seen on the left, but, in his role, it didn’t matter. Since I know him and have respect for the work he’d done for D.C. Week, at iStrategy Labs for Apps for the Army, and other initiatives, I know what he’s done.
I also believe that the informal nature of 140 Conference requires no more of us than that we represent ourselves as ourselves and share what matters, much like, perhaps, we might approach Twitter.
Representative Mike Honda (D-CA) may have come dressed in a suit, as you might expect from a Congressman in D.C., but what he said reflected that sentiment:
“It’s about sharing who you are, rather than trying to sell what you’d like to have people believe about you.”
By focusing on what people wore instead of what they said or have done, I’m not sure Schaffer honored the hard work of the organizers, nor the quality of the experiences that, say, Justin Kownacki shared.
Kownacki, whose cargo shorts drew attention at the D.C. 140 Conference, tweeted afterwards that “I don’t believe in wardrobe labels. I judge words and actions, not packaging. I’m amused by the #140conf attendees who think my wardrobe ‘killed my credibility.’ Who knew packaging dictates truth? Wardrobes provide a shorthand by which we can exclude & ignore. Makes life easier for traditionalists & streamliners, I’m sure.”
I’ve been to dozens of tech conferences, many of which featured people dressed to the nines with little substantive tactical or strategic value.
I can frankly say, as someone who has overdressed on occasion, that sometimes wearing shorts and a hip t-shirt is absolutely the right choice.
Tools and Togs both matter
Schaffer wrote that “a carpenter is known for getting the job done, not which saw he uses.”
That’s both true and untrue. Master builders who can afford to work with Bosch or DeWalt tools do so because of the quality of the tools and the precision product they allow. It’s true that someone with lack of knowledge to use them will fare far worse that a worker without, just as a rube with an expensive composite fly rod might be outfished by a boy with a cheap piece of bamboo and string, if the young man knows where and how to apply his simple rig. What you do with the tools matters more than their quality, but don’t overlook the fact that those tools do matter.
If someone contracts with a professional videographer to create a broadcast-quality ad and she showed up with a disposable camera and a vintage iBook, what would the new client think?
Consider the building example again. Carpenters are known for building things out of wood. Getting the job done is dependent upon the general contractor who employs him or her, or the reputation of the master builder that is hired. I have some familiarity with carpentry, after working as an apprentice for 18 months in Massachusetts. In that role, I wore shorts when it was hot, Carhardt pants when it wasn’t and many layers of fleece and polypro when it was frigid. We dressed as needed to get the job done. If someone showed up on the job site improperly dressed, or without boots, a belt, gloves and a full set of tools, he couldn’t get the job done without a loan of same.
Working in digital media is no different, in the sense that what we wear what we need to to accomplish a goal, in the context of the social mores of the space we move in.
Virtually, that might mean creating a well-designed website that is standards compliant. Or developing a mobile app for a conference or service. In the social media world, it means adding an avatar, bio, link and other elements that fill out a profile before sally forth. Dressing to impress can mean many things, but in the end, it’s what you can do and have done that will matter most to your clients, customers and audience. Did I get the story right? Will the house stay sound for decades? Is this a sustainable business? Does the app work?
Given the monumental challenges that lie ahead for government officials in Washington and around the nation, I suspect many citizens would rather they focus on getting real results, narrowing budgets, passing effective legislation and developing effective regulations that address issues in the financial, technical and environmental space, rather than any wardrobe choice.
As for me, I hope I can wear shorts more often around Washington.