What to Wear

“If your customer expects you to wear something more than jeans and a t-shirt, you need to get a new customer”

We were discussing dress expectations recently, and someone noted that it’s always a good idea to match what your customer/client wears in the programming world.  The response to that was the quote above — get a new customer if you can’t wear whatever.  I know that’s a very popular concept in the tech world right now, but it frustrates the crap out of me for a variety of reasons.

1. Your privilege is speaking when you say to just get a new customer.  Not everyone can get a new job so easily.  People say that programmers are in great need and you just walk into a new job whenever you want.  I know the sentiment behind that is that you should feel confident in your skills.  However, if you’ve never had a programming job and are struggling to get your first one — it makes you feel like you’re the only one struggling and it’s shameful.  If you’ve ever been unemployed for a while, it makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you.  Saying you should get a new customer or a new job is similar to telling a poor person to just get a better paying job.

2. Some people feel more comfortable wearing certain clothes over others.  If you feel comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt, that’s great!  But don’t feel like you should shame people who like wearing button downs or dresses.  Casual dress code means that I can casually decide to wear whatever I feel comfortable in.  If I don’t feel comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt, then the expectation to that I should wear that feels as restricting as a formal dress code.

3. Just because you’re accepting of a person’s ability regardless of what they wear, it doesn’t mean that everyone in the world is.  With all of the racial profiling that still goes on, especially in the St. Louis area, it seems blissfully ignorant to tell non-white people that they can wear whatever and it won’t matter.  I was talking to someone who was frustrated that he felt like he couldn’t win — his white mentors told him to wear jeans and a t-shirt to fit in with the programming crowd, he got his job because he was a “well-dress black man”, and his family/friends mocked him for speaking and dressing like “the man.”  He felt like anything he wore was betraying himself in some way — either he was harming his chances to be successful or he wasn’t fitting in with his family or friends anymore.  Another friend told me about his struggles of having to change in the car depending on who he was seeing.

It’s easy to tell people to wear what they want and to be sure of themselves, etc., etc. but it might not be as easy for you as it is for others.  Remember that the way that you dress and hold yourself are a result of the way you were brought up and the societal pressures around you.  Where you see a t-shirt and jeans as being relaxed, other people might see it as another way of betraying themselves and their culture.  Overall, I think people should try to encourage people to wear what they feel comfortable with even if it’s not the same thing as you.

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