The gal at the drive up window at the bank asked why I was so dressed up.
I didn’t necessarily feel dressed up, but I did have on a jacket and tie.
“Oh,” I said, “I’m coming from the college. This is what I wear to teach in every day.”
“Well, you look very professional,” she said. “I hate when they wear jeans.”
By “they” I assumed she meant teachers.
I smiled but didn’t respond. From her vantage point she could not see that I, too, was wearing jeans.
It’s part of what I call my college professor uniform: shirt, tie and jeans. The sport coat usually is left hanging in my office when I head off to class.
I tell my students whether we realize it or not, we all wear uniforms. Usually, several different ones.
My college professor uniform works for me because, well, I’m a college professor. A banker or a lawyer could not get away with it. But neither can I for certain occasions. Take last Tuesday when I accompanied a bus load of students to the State Capitol in Harrisburg. Technically, since I was with my students, I was a professor. But the Capitol called for a different uniform: a full suit, or as I chose that day, a sport coat with dress slacks and dress shoes. And, of course, a tie. The jeans would not have cut it in the office of a state representative or senator. Not that they would have minded, but I would have.
Even Mark Zuckerberg, if you took notice, ditched the hoodie for his trip to Congress.
Student attire for our Harrisburg trip, for both males and females, was all over the place. Sneakers and jeans, dress slacks, skirts and blouses, button-down collars with sweaters. Only one young man came in a jacket and tie. When I had the opportunity to chat with him out of earshot of the others (didn’t want anyone to feel bad), I complimented him and shared a “rule” I read in Esquire magazine several years ago: it is always better to be over-dressed than under-dressed. If a tie winds up being too much, you can always take it off.
“Daytime dressy,” what the Harrisburg trip called for, is a foreign concept to most of my students. There’s no blame in that statement. It’s just an observation.
If questioned, my students, save for those who work in McDonald’s or Burger King, would be quick to say they do not wear a uniform. But they do. “You all wear the uniform of college student,” I tell them. Typically, that means jeans, sneakers and a hoodie, which, if taken off, usually reveals a T-shirt with a message imprinted on it, anything from a Grateful Dead logo to an obscene word or gesture. Again, no blame there. I clearly recall how much I loved the double-takes when adults saw me in my “Bull Shirt” tee in college 50 years ago.
Even then, though, I was well aware of the uniform thing. My students are shocked when I tell them when I was their age, if I asked a girl out to dinner, I showed up in a jacket and tie. The same was true of going to church. There were occasions so special they required you to dress your best.
Daytime attire back then was another story. For college classes, I suppose you’d say I dressed the part of a typical Sixties’ art major: bell bottoms, tie-dyes and boots. When at my part-time job at the newspaper, however, where I mostly wrote sports, you might say I dressed like a “jock”: jeans, sneaks and tennis shirt.
Once I graduated, however, and accepted a full-time job at the same paper, things changed. My boss wanted me in a tie. But rather than making that an order, he sold me on the idea by saying I should wear a tie so that I could enjoy the marvelous feeling of taking it off at the end of the day. Sounded so good to me I’ve been doing it ever since. Just loosening that tie for the ride home is special in itself.
Eventually, selecting the proper uniform becomes second nature, but that cannot happen without mentors to guide you when you’re young. Or not so young. I was in my 40s when a superior asked me if I owned a tuxedo. “A man your age,” he said, “should never go anywhere in a rented tux.” I went out and bought one the next day. It’s paid for itself a hundred times over.
Other things, by the way, fall under that “man my age” label. One summer’s day my wife asked me if I’d accompany her to a checkup at the doctor’s office.
“Give me a minute,” I said, “I have to change out of these shorts.”
“Why?” she said. “It’s hot out.”
“I know,” I countered, “but a man my age sitting in a doctor’s waiting room needs to be in big boy pants.”
We’re living in a casual age. This I know. The fella sitting at the next table in the prestigious Russian Tea Room in New York City a few years ago looked perfectly at home in his Steelers sweatshirt and matching cap. But I can’t help thinking if the clothes you wear to work are also the clothes you wear to mow the lawn and also the clothes you wear to wash the car and also the clothes you wear to the ball game and also the clothes you wear when out to dinner and perhaps even the clothes you wear to bed, your life is robbed of a certain richness that comes with dressing the part.
Of course, all of this might be just me. An old guy living in the past.
I accept that. But at least I’m wearing big boy pants.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week for Greater Pittston Progress. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.