T-Shirts And Tech: Solving The Sartorial Equation

I don’t normally pay much attention to fashion. I’m not a fashion blogger. I don’t read fashion articles. If I think something looks good, I wear it.

That being said, there’s a really interesting trend in tech whereby dressing down is dressing up. If you show up to a VC pitch on Sand Hill Road wearing a suit, you’d look out of place. I’ve seen the same thing here in Toronto: The look of horror when the three-piece recognizes they’re floating in a sea of v-necks.

If we were to really give this more than a cursory glance and look at when business casual became casual, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg seem like a good place to start. In public, you would see Steve wearing his typified jeans, sneakers and black turtleneck. Individuals in the industry straying away from the latter item altogether (lest they be giving off the appearance of trying to remotely resemble the greatest “think different-er” of our time) really does limit one’s turtleneck options.

In Mark’s case we see the same gray T-shirt on a daily basis, with his rationale being that a consistent (and incredibly casual) clothing choice results in him having to expend less mental effort, therefore enabling him to put his mind to the key task of his day — running Facebook. Makes sense, if you think about it; this is an extra variable you can remove from the equation that is your morning routine. You consistently know what casual wear you’ll be slipping on after the rise and shine stint in your shower. How functional.

There’s something else at play here though, and this is unique to the tech industry. We’re a strict meritocracy. College drop-outs have become wildly successful as a result of their codebases underpinning beautifully crafted and viral products that have changed the way we interact with each other and our world. Degrees don’t matter. What you do, and what you ship, does. Outward appearance isn’t as important as the quality of the work you do. This is something other sectors don’t have the luxury (or ability?) of embracing. Output and quality trump all.

Let’s contrast this with a profession that prides itself on appearance (and degrees). Say, lawyers.

Law grads emphasize professionalism, and professionalism, in this context, emphasizes a certain social decorum, vis-a-vis dress. Suits are expected. But why? Is the work and effort a decent lawyer puts into drafting a contract any less than the programmer who finalizes a really complex database design? Not necessarily. And yet the junior associate is held to a different standard of dress.

Shorts are almost always easier to put on than cufflinks.

More than anything else, the way we appear as individuals is an outward reflection into the world of how we see ourselves. Mental gymnastics aren’t required to take the logical jump from this and claim that expectations of dress in the work world are outward reflections of how industries see themselves and want the world to perceive them.

What does this all mean? I’m not sure. What I do know is that business casual is now casual, shorts are almost always easier to put on than cufflinks and content of character and quality of work are more effective barometers of success than outward appearances in the workplace. Are these the hallmarks of an industry that is more comfortable, and potentially more confident, in itself? You might be able to fight that in court.