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Put Down Your Phone, Put on Something Spiffy

How clothes can help us be present in a world where that’s getting harder to do.

Raise your hand if you have ever worn gym clothes all day.

I tried this once. I never made it to the gym that day, though the thought that I needed to nagged me until dinnertime. At 7 p.m., as I ate my salad in un-sweaty leggings, I felt like my day had yet to start. I hadn’t done the one activity I had gotten dressed to do.

Let’s try another one. Raise your hand if you sometimes wake up, brush your teeth, and then ask yourself, “Why change out of my pajamas if I’m not going outside?”

I’d like to answer that question with an unpopular opinion: It matters how you dress, even if no one is going to see you.

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The last time I tried to be productive in pajamas, I wasted time on nonsense all morning, ate lunch, and then rewarded myself with a three-hour nap.

I think you’re catching on by now. I think it’s important to keep your gym clothes, work clothes, and pajamas separate. Not everyone feels the same, though. More often, I see college students wearing wrinkly, slept-in pajamas at three in the afternoon or sporting sweatpants to meet their professors. Someone told me recently that the last time he rode a plane, he saw another passenger wearing a onesie. It seems to me that we’re rejecting dress codes as if they were oppressive. But actually, they can be valuable.

I struggle to focus on what I’m doing when I’m not properly dressed, such as when I’m trying to write a paper, but my leggings won’t shut up: “You need to go to the gym in three hours,” they whisper on repeat. Furthermore, struggling to be present is a cultural problem that goes far beyond being underdressed, and we need to deal with it now in a different way than we used to.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend an intimate lecture with an award-winning author. Looking around the room, I saw many of the audience members dividing their attentions between the author and phones hidden in their laps. Few were listening, really listening, to the information being shared with them in real time.

I see people do this everywhere I go, especially if they are college-age or younger. I do it too. It’s hard to block out the endless string of stimuli spewing from my phone, to focus on the here-and-now. But when we’re too busy trying to see what is going on elsewhere, we can’t absorb what is happening right before our eyes.

This problem isn’t new, and it isn’t unique to America. In 1928, Russian artist Alexander Rodchenko worried, “We don’t see what we look at.” He proposed to solve this problem with a shift in photographic practice. Taking pictures of mundane objects from unusual perspectives, he thought, might capture their true essence and help viewers see the world when they look at it.

Unlike Rodchenko, who came up with new theory for the field of photography, I’ll make a much simpler suggestion for fashion—let’s revisit something we did in the recent past.

Let’s take advantage of the fact that certain types of clothing have different, generally accepted connotations. In almost every case, form was designed to fit function when the item was originally designed. There is a reason that suits are expected in environments like offices that expect productivity—lounging in fabric that wrinkles feels counterintuitive, and it’s almost impossible to doze off in a shirt and tie. The same goes for onesies and comfort.

Some designers are already capitalizing on fashion stereotypes to reimagine clothes with an artful creativity. The brand Vince makes sweatpants out of silk to turn a comfortable silhouette into something more formal. The tapered Adidas soccer pants and those tight-around-the-ankle joggers that seem to be part of every man’s wardrobe these days both create a similar effect—they’re comfortable, but they’re neat. In women’s fashion, pajamas seem to provide endless inspiration (see: the rise of the slip dress, the pajama suit, and the Gucci slipper).

The kernel of truth in Rodchenko’s words extends far beyond the field of visual art. It is possible to look without seeing, to hear without listening, or to exist without being present. To avoid simply going through the motions of life, we must decide to appreciate the things we’re viewing, hearing, or doing. We have to let them consume us, embrace us, clothe us.

Don’t get me wrong: I love coming up with creative ways to break fashion rules. The day I decided that sneakers were the new heels was the first day of the rest of my life. But even as I redefined the purpose of sneakers, I did it in moderation. I’ll wear sneaks with any fancy dress, but I differentiate my party kicks from the ratty ones I use to run around the Charles River.

Humans may always struggle to be truly present. But since Rodchenko’s day, enough has changed that we need to renew our approach to the problem. As more people become entrepreneurs, launching the next Google, Lyft, or Twitter while sitting in Tatte, the corporate offices that used to impose dress codes are losing power. In the face of this shift, we need to come up with a way of signaling to others and ourselves when we’re at work and when we’re getting ready for bed.

Maybe, this will simply mean that we design all of our “work clothes” to mimic the silk pajama shirts with lapels and buttons. If that’s the plan, I’ll lead the way. I must admit: I already own a shirt just like that.

Lily K. Calcagnini ’18, a former Crimson Editorial executive, is a History & Literature concentrator living in Dunster House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays. Follow her on Twitter @lilmisscalc.

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