Dressing for success in Washington: Suits, shirtsleeves and shorts

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.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Dressing for success in Washington: Suits, shirtsleeves and shorts

  1. Thanks for writing about this subject. I found myself rather unamused by the one speaker in cargo shorts. I think, YES — there should be some seasonal flexibility for dressing. Women do it. Men should be able to as well. But linen shorts and a crisp shirt, or quality cotton shirt, speak to a very different intent than sloppy cargo shirts, a nothing top and open-toe Tevas.

    I’m all for working at home in comfy clothes, easy casual meetings with clients at local cafes and the relaxing of tone and communication from corporations into a more human-sounding voice and a human-oriented focus. I’m not only FOR it; it’s part and parcel of the services I provide clients.

    But for a speaker to stand before an audience and talk about “appropriateness” and messaging and yet think he somehow was excused from this himself, was odd to me.

    As one who personally tends to live more at the edge than the mainstream, I know my ideas/thoughts/perspectives are “edgy enough” for most people. Consequently, I often dress more conservatively. The last time I wore a suit was on a sweltering hot day in June (with temps hovering near 100 and humidity, too!). And I would be quite ok if I never wore a suit again. But I think if people want to be casual and comfortable, that doesn’t have to mean sloppy and unprofessional.

    #my2cents!

    ;-)

  2. I’m not a fan of cargo shorts in any setting, but it is much more shameful that Washington is a city in which “Seersucker Thursdays” are viewed as daring flair.

    Sure, student athletes should not wear flip flops to the White House (remember that “scandal”?), but the relentlessly conformist student-government-types of DC should be able to handle some climate-appropriate casual dress.

  3. I’m a fan of linen in summer. 100% only. It gets fabulously wrinkled, looks casual and always has a touch of elegance because, well, because it’s linen. Men and women can wear linen, look good, be comfortable in sweltering temperatures and walk that line between casual and professional with ease. #my2cents

  4. Pingback: 200+ Blog Posts about #DCWEEK – Here are 70 | Digital Capital Week

  5. So far, I’ve been called “offensive,” “embarrassing” and “unamusing” for my choice to wear shorts and sandals while speaking to a group of social media practitioners. Folks, if you think *that’s* earth-shattering, you should see what I tell my actual clients to do in order to improve their businesses.

    Not that those I’ve offended would ever take my advice, since my wardrobe choices have already proven that my character — and, by extension, my judgment — is suspect. In the future, I’ll be sure to warn my paying clients — including those who, ironically, have contacted me *because* of my speech at #140conf — that someone in a suit or some finely pressed linens will be better able to devise innovative solutions for their business needs.

    Unfortunately, I can’t guarantee they’ll agree. But I promise to genuflect to the altar of tradition before I deposit every one of their checks.

    • Hi Justin, As a fellow “perpetual contrarian,” I’m glad to see you in this conversation. My sense is that you created more response about your attire because *you made it an issue;* it was one of the first things you spoke of in your presentation at #140conf. So, naturally, when one puts a stake in the ground and says, “I stand for X,” others are alerted and say, “Hey, I stand for Y.”

      For me, the disconnect in your stance was in the nature of what your professional work is: “communicating,” to sum it up in one word. (You’re welcome to sum it up otherwise, of course.) To me, it wasn’t so much that you were in “sloppy” clothes, but that, in essence, you claimed it doesn’t matter what someone wears, when it does. Design matters. Choices matter. Otherwise, why would I talk to a client about design and making sure that there is consistency between who they are, what they say and where they say it. Why would I, when assessing client-controlled publishing tools, aim to make sure that the pieces are all designed to communicate a message about the WHO the client is?

      I think you’re smart. I like you. I’m glad you’re doing good work and helping clients. I’m glad you spoke at #140conf. And I think you — and all those who jumped in on the convo, self included –experienced a very natural phenomenon that when you take a stand for something, it alerts (and calls forth) others to take a stand as well.

      More fodder for us all, more knowledge, more experience in this whole conversation, ja?

      Btw, I line-dry my linen to avoid ironing as much as possible. :-)

  6. I think this is one of those things where people seem to focus on the wrong thing. As long as you’re clean, don’t smell and your private parts aren’t showing, it’s more important to focus on the message.

    There was another blog post recently focused on how people shouldn’t wear jeans if they are speaking at a conference. I just don’t understand why there is such a focus on these things instead of the content.

  7. Common Business Sense:
    Any business person that cares about making money and acquiring new clients should not present themselves to potential clients in a way that will turn those potential clients away.

    This does not mean you have to follow some strict dress code at all. Be be yourself and express your on style, but also be honest with yourself. If I want to provide a service to company X and they can’t see beyond a “conservative” attitude about attire, I will not disrespect this potential relationship/check by disregarding that. “No Room for Distractions”

  8. Pingback: Blogging isn’t dead, influence contests should be, and hyperlinks rock. | digiphile

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