My closet is the smallest it’s been in years, both in its actual depth measurements and in its content. Even when all of my clothes are cleaned and hung, the hangers don’t fill the four feet of wooden rod. It’s mostly summer and early fall things that hang there now; my winter pieces sit in various garages in Minnesota and Oregon. I’m lucky that they’ll be shipped when I ask for them, whenever the temperature solicits my wool socks from storage.
I quit my job earlier this year, and moved clear across the country. I’d worked in a large office for not quite two years, sitting at a desk: answering phones, opening doors, and picking up donuts for people. Of course, I did other things as well, but it’s this list of tasks which provided the sartorial outline to my closet’s development during those two years. Blazers, pleated gray trousers, shift dresses with modest slits, cardigans to match each shade of the mixed-neutrals rainbow – these are the things I woke up to when I stumbled to my closet at 6 a.m. I didn’t mind, despite getting flack from my less formal friends for using the word “slacks.” I grew up learning penmanship by scribbling pretend memos as CEO of some important company. Being a businesswoman was always a goal of mine, and except for the actual “business” aspect, I had finally met that goal. At least I could dress the part.
Search Google images for “Women in the office.” Maybe add a little color, loosen the bun, and take off a few years. Definitely take off the forced stock-photo grin. I was never unhappy about wearing the same coral button-up, black slacks combo four times a month. It was simple, straightforward, and comfortable. A no-brainer. Whenever I added to my old lumpy buffet of a wardrobe, I had the pleasantly safe sales bins at Banana Republic and Gap to sift through. Happiness was a $4.00 pair of argyle socks. The clearance rack of the Macy’s shoes department was a particular joy.
Sure, I was bored and fixating on a semi-tangential concern like style out of resignation once I knew for sure my job was nothing more. But as far as I’m aware, it’s mostly girls who grow up dressing their dolls in “businesswear,” or “playing office” with heart-stamped memo pads. I knew what working in an office looked like way before I knew anything about what it would be like. This is true for most. The familiarity can be a sticking point. I don’t know if I would have stayed as long in such an unsatisfying role if the uniform hadn’t so satisfyingly slipped on each morning.
Without knowing it, I was Tom Rath in heels and a pencil skirt. The clothes stood for something, mostly the thing I was conditioned to want more of. Work. A professional resume. A knowledgeable reputation. J.Crew has clothes for successful, laughing Creative Directors and Senior Developers; stock photos and Google images back this up. Executive Barbie stuck her thumb up years ago, and my female boss gave the final go-ahead at our bi-weekly lunches. My friends knew it too, even the ones who’d given me a hard time at first. Their closets had at least one suit hanging in anticipation, ready for the interview, ready to work. Back home, my mom’s work clothes were mostly forgotten if she hadn’t already sold them at a garage sale by the fourth year of her unemployment. Having someplace to wear pinstriped pants was a startling privilege.
Dressing myself, now – on the mornings I decide to get dressed – means a few more detours than the old office thoroughfare. There are holes and rips to navigate or avoid entirely, shirts stained with pizza sauce, coffee, and plain old dirt. I had no idea that a lack of an office job would mean I’m liable to ignore the sludge that magically appears on the rear of my linen pants. Most of my outfits nowadays find some way of not matching with one another, or of being so thin and worn as to be outwardly offensive to the kids jumping rope on my block. I’m one dress-tucked-into-tights mistake away from being nine years old again, learning how and how not to dress myself without any authority to rule my decisions.
It seems like the simplest freedom, mundane, and probably of the first-world sort. But everyone knows the confining qualities of grey flannel workwear, even in 1956; and now, there’s Don Draper to drive the point home for the younger set. Styles may have evolved, but offices still have dress codes; and Zucotti Park has (if less explicit) codes for contemporary protest-wear. Clothes making the man is an antiquated notion until you think about the last time you stood staring at your closet for longer than two minutes.
Occasionally I’ll find myself in this exact situation, flipping through hangers and feeling close to defeat, when a relic from my professional past shows up. It’s something like facing an ex, the blank stare as your mind tries to remember what you felt during your time with them, what you’d expected of the future, what you’d ever seen in them to begin with. I’ll finger the softly-worn elbows of my tweed jacket and feel nothing except a few strings stubbornly poking their way out.