As expected, the bible says it best: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
Once the requirements of necessity are met; the covering of our nakedness, comfort, protection from the elements, think if you can of any plausible reason for attending to your appearance beyond the following two considerations:
1. To signify, hold or advance your position in society.
2. To get laid.
I find it difficult to posit any other reasons* for concern about personal appearance that do not fall under those two simple umbrellas.
This small revelation into the human penchant for adornment, for gilding the lilies of our physical selves, struck me decades ago on a rainy winter’s morning. Like Poincare’s sudden grasping of the mathematical theorem that bears his name. “I was stepping up onto the omnibus, when it came to me,” I was stepping down off a local train when I noticed the variety, narrow as it was, in the raingear of my fellow commuters. This was in the foppish nineteen-seventies, and while tan or beige raincoats dominated, the more stylish proclaimed their presence in black or russet or even among the ladies, white. Aside from the basic London Fogs and their knock-offs, there were even the retro trench-coats from a forgotten war, some with woolen collar liners, and some even had the Burberry belt clips for officer’s equipment.
This small awakening led me to a conclusion regarding the first part of my Iron Law, the one about status. Again, once necessity is dealt with, all else represents choice, and choice in matters of style becomes statement. This is who I am, or even more important in our own times, this is who I wish to be taken for.
Going from there, I began to study the clothing choices of my fellow worker bees and drones within the large corporate bureaucracy where I was serving my time. In sorting out the proclaimers of status form the aspirants, I noted that an absence of attention to detail was as much a statement as conscious choice. To not participate was a decision. Those who appeared to take no care in their appearance seemed also to have lost interest in the advancement of their careers.
While many of the top-tier executives were graduates of Ivy League schools, an outsider if asked to identify the Yalies and Princeton Tigers among us would have probably chosen a couple of the aspirational night-school or day-hop graduates, several of whom who took more care in appearing preppie than their casually entitled superiors. I can’t remember who coined the phrase about “the imposter defining the type,” but it was applied to a public-school, officer-type like George Orwell who became the compleate working-class bloke. Then there was Irwin Rommel, the lower-middle-class Bavarian as Prussian Junker. The ambitious up-from-the-ranks guys in my office were significantly more Ivy than the guys they were imitating. Hmmm.
As far as Law Two, the sexual imperative: Ask yourself, why do so many people, particularly men, cease to take care of their appearance as they age? Maybe there isn’t much point to preening when you know you are no longer in the game. As for the lifelong, competitive appearance drive exhibited by so many women, I offer the Van Morrison line that, “the girls go by dressed up for each other.”
* The only possible dispensation I could grant to the dogmatic rules of appearance goes to the those happy souls who see life as nothing more than a continuing costume party, and array themselves in accordance.