Say a man wears a navy or charcoal suit with a white dress shirt every day. The only change he makes is his tie. Former President Obama did this, explaining, "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make." To which almost everyone said, "Cool. That makes sense." When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wears jeans, a gray tee shirt, and a gray hoodie every day, or any other man wears Levi's and a white Oxford button-down as a daily uniform, people either make no comment, or decide that the look is "iconic" and makes a lot of sense for a busy, important man.
However, if a woman wears a signature outfit every day, most people write her off as unstylish and/or unfeminine. People wonder if she's letting herself go. When Hillary Clinton went through a period of wearing dark pant suits (the closest parallel to the outfits of her male counterparts), she was labeled "dowdy" and "boring." Michelle Obama is constantly praised for her style savvy, as if that's the only thing she has going for her.
It's really a double standard.
While it might be fairly common for men to wear variations on the same outfit every day, for women it is harder to achieve the same kind of wardrobe simplicity. As Susan Sorokanich, a 60ish interior decorator explains, "You need to have a lot of self-confidence in your choices." She wears a black boat neck shirt with three-quarter sleeves and slim-fitting blue jeans, adding jewelry or a scarf for variety (much like a man who owns several snazzy ties to go with his navy suits). She'll don denim shorts if she's gardening, and black trousers if she's meeting a new client or going out for dinner. "I don't waste any time shopping for clothes or deciding what to wear every day," says Sorokanich, who's been dressing this way for nearly 20 years. "It's been so incredibly liberating."
Women do feel social pressure to wear different outfits every day. Every time I've written about a capsule wardrobe, I've talked about ways to accomplish that even with a small number of clothes. And maybe the socialite or royal doesn't dare wear the same thing twice. They probably need wardrobe mistresses and on-call couturiers. But the rest of us aren't on display.
What would happen if a woman pared her wardrobe to a single outfit (with multiple copies, of course, so that she always has clean clothes)? Would it actually streamline her mornings? Would people notice and think she wasn't professional? Would it get boring?
It turns out that most women who experiment with a uniform find it a pleasant experience. Stephanie Mehta, editor-in-chief at Fast Company, found that her outfit of a black turtleneck with a black skirt worked well for school drop-offs, on-camera TV appearances, and dinners out. She varied lipsticks, earrings, belts, shoes, and bags for different situations. She was surprised by the lack of reaction to her outfit, and believes that her clothes were so inconspicuous that people did not seem to remember what she wore from day to day.
Matilda Kahl, creative manager at Sony Music, chose a white silk blouse and black trousers for work (adding a black blazer if it was cold). She enjoys wearing different color shoes – "That's my little creative channel," she says. Kahl has noticed an increase in productivity since she stopped focusing on what to wear.
Renata Briggman, real estate agent and mother of two young children, has opted for a uniform of black trousers, white tee shirt, gray blazer, black ballet flats, a silver necklace, and a slim red belt. On weekends she wears black jeans and a denim jacket; in the winter she wears black boots. She used to look into her crowded closet and feel that she had nothing to wear. Now she says, "It's saved me hours. I get more compliments and feel more put together. And nobody notices the uniform. We assume that other people are paying attention to what we are wearing when they are all really more focused on their own lives."
Kate Rose, a self-described "plus-size person," says, "I've found I never had the same amount of choice in trying to find things to wear as my smaller friends.... The lifelong struggle of trying to find a way to look acceptable to the world every morning, especially as a fat person, was making me extremely unhappy." (I can relate to this.) When she bought multiple copies of a black dress she liked, she felt more confident about getting dressed every morning. Ms. Rose enjoys being creative with belts, cardigans, jewelry, and hats, and reports that "wearing the same thing every day has been the single thing I have done this past year that has contributed to the satisfaction of my day-to-day life."
8 Reasons to Wear a Uniform
- It saves time.
- It saves money.
- It saves emotional energy.
- It saves mental energy and reduces decision fatigue.
- It frees you from the tyranny of whatever color or look is currently in vogue, so you dress for yourself rather than in response to others.
- It allows you to choose quality pieces that are just your style.
- It gives you polish and confidence.
- It removes the worry and distraction of what to wear so you can focus and accomplish more in other areas.