Understand what you wear to work
Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity
(Cornell University Press)
US: Nov 2015
Erynn Masi de Casanova’s Buttoned Up is a thoroughly excellent study that will inevitably not get an audience of readers as large and diverse as it deserves. Yes, it is marketed as “social science”, and yes, it has that lengthy subtitle, “Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity”. Don’t you remember how much you adored that one sociology class you took in undergrad? What a very good surprise it was to find the artfulness sparkling everywhere in your effort to scientifically interpret the meaning of group behaviors? Buttoned Up captures that energy in the best possible way.
Increasingly, men in American culture have been given social permission to admit that they care about what their clothing choices say about their character. Men’s fashion magazines were once viewed as a shallow-minded guilty pleasure, but they are more than ever a handbook for what you can wear to the office. Few people have a closet full of uniforms, so every morning involves making decisions about how to present yourself at work. What will this bold yellow stripe say about my level of seriousness in that afternoon meeting? Will anybody notice my funky socks in the break room? Should I leave the tie at home on Fridays?
GQ Magazine can tell you what is trendy right now. It can answer a few of your fraught questions about cufflinks and shoes. Every month when I read this magazine, I am left with two feelings: most people pay more attention to what’s hot right now than I do, and there are a lot of looks that I don’t feel I can pull off. Readers of men’s fashion magazines of course try to imagine themselves wearing what is recommended in those pages, and often feel that their own closet falls short of the mark.
Reading Buttoned Up, I felt much better about my wardrobe and the choices I’ve made. The book addresses clothing choices from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. It does not suggest what you should do; it only describes with perfect attention to detail what other men are doing. Masi de Casanova exhaustively interviewed real, average corporate workers in San Francisco, Cincinnati and New York. She compiles the results in a way that is both thorough and warm, and ultimately in a way that should prove timeless.
I saw myself in many of the anecdotes and quotations. Despite the basic facts that I am not a man and I do not work for a corporation, I still found so much of the treatment of clothing to be about me. Every reader will make connections to differing aspects of the author’s analysis. That is the true power and beauty of approaching men’s workwear from a sociological perspective. The study is statistical and meticulous, but moreover, displays an ample sense of humor and a genuinely respectful curiosity about the thousand tiny variations of white-collar clothing. All these nuances are carefully imbued with social meaning, transformed into a series of obvious but strong conclusions that will put readers as ease when confronting the guesswork about their own wardrobes.
It’s hard to say that I “learned” something from this book. It’s even difficult to quantify in what ways this book will alter my daily decisions about what to wear to work. Many of Masi de Casanova’s findings are things most people intuit, but there’s something lovely about the way she lays it all out on the table. There’s ample proof in Buttoned Up that you do indeed know what people will make of your understated wristwatch or your three piece suit—it’s just so completely excellent to have it confirmed, in print, by a scientist.
Office culture is full of passive aggressions and radical uncertainties. Buttoned Up is a delightfully firm hook on which to hang your hat, if hats are your thing. The author has a fun, personable tone. She’s not heavy on numbers or footnotes or jargon. The language is not dry or overly academic, though academics are the obvious target audience. I hope Buttoned Up is read by a lot of regular people, because it’s about regular people and more regular people could use some reassurance that they’ve been reading their work situations correctly.
Many of the book’s conclusions are ambivalent: the suit is or isn’t a uniform, uniforms are or aren’t soul-crushing, conformity is or isn’t strategic. Read though the richly detailed stories and scenarios, find the ones that best fit your own life, and then run with that. Masi de Casanova gives us a lot more room to move in than GQ Magazine, and there’s no reason why readers of men’s fashion magazines cannot pick up a copy of Buttoned Up.
Maybe you’ve always made good clothing choices instinctively. This book will give you a clearer understanding of the rationales behind those choices, so you can do with satisfyingly knowledgeable intention what you previously accomplished by savvy instinct alone. For any regular person with a mild interest in how to decide what to wear, Buttoned Up is a perfect opportunity to level-up.
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