How do we dress for important events at a time when expectations are rapidly shifting?
As traditions wane and conventions shift, getting dressed for an event has never been more confusing.
Important life moments like weddings, funerals and job interviews used to come with a set of unspoken fashion rules that varied according to cultural background or job arena. But as a result of globalization and social media’s unyielding reign, today’s social structures are rapidly evolving, upending expectations of all sorts and leaving many of us scratching our head as we stare into our closet ahead of an event. Is it more important to dress as convention would dictate, or are you better off wearing what makes you feel like your authentic self? In the era of the individual, that answer is entirely up to you.
Characteristics like social class, profession, marital status and mood can easily be communicated by the way you adorn yourself. But like runway trends, “these conventions are temporary, really; they come and go,” says professor Carolyn Mair, a chartered psychologist and the author of the 2018 book The Psychology of Fashion. For example, dressing up—or down—is no longer a clear identifier of social class. Thanks to the casualization of society that has gradually taken hold over the past two to three decades, it is not unusual to see ripped jeans in an expensive restaurant or sneakers at the opera.
In her new memoir Uncanny Valley, author Anna Wiener writes about wearing a shift dress, heeled boots and a blazer to her first job interview at a tech start-up in Silicon Valley following her career in publishing. “I felt like a narc,” she says, describing how she felt after spotting the company’s employees in a truly effortless uniform of jeans, sneakers and T-shirts. “I shrugged off the blazer as discreetly as possible and stuffed it into my tote bag.” Dressing down for a job interview may seem counterintuitive, but Mair explains that self-expression through dress is considered an asset in creative industries like fashion and tech: “They value, want and encourage disruption. They want people with ideas that rock the boat.”
But in industries built on the principle of stability, proper presentation is a critical reflection of someone’s expertise—and that doesn’t always leave much room for selfexpression, cultural or otherwise. Sarah,* a partner at a law firm, says that what matters most at work is that outfits convey common sense. “I think the big thing is showing that you’re capable of understanding that the workplace is not about you,” she says. “Your appearance can reflect on your employer, and we want to see that you can show good judgment in that regard. I don’t care if you’re wearing a cheap suit—but it should be pressed, for instance.”
Still, as her office becomes more diverse and more women like her are given leadership roles, Sarah says there’s now room to deviate from the hyper-conservative uniform (blue suits, red ties and dress shoes) traditionally worn by her senior male counterparts. While she does have a selection of black Hugo Boss suits reserved for formal events like court appearances, for day-to-day she challenges her industry’s norm by wearing bright colours, prints and even dark jeans with a blazer—and any reactions she has received have been positive. Having developed a sense of confidence since being called to the bar in 2012, Sarah no longer conforms to outdated expectations of how women were once expected to dress for work. “I’m not going to make myself uncomfortable to look a certain way in the workplace anymore,” she says, referring to sky-high heels and figure-hugging skirts.
Life-changing events such as funerals and weddings come with their own set of clothing conventions, which are often rooted in values and beliefs. Mourners in many parts of the world convey their grief via sombre black ensembles, whereas Hindu funeral-goers favour white. Chinese brides don traditional red dresses for their weddings, as the colour is considered to be a symbol of good luck and happiness. And Western brides typically choose to wear white, though many are opting to buck that tradition, too. As for the unspoken rule that wedding guests should not wear white (to avoid competing with the bride), that directive is also starting to fade. When Sarah got married, she wore a long sequined white dress with a veil and her mother wore a white silk dress that she’d bought while on holiday in Europe. Sarah wasn’t bothered by it and says that how her mother felt was more important than being the only one in white that day. “Having something special to wear at my wedding was important to her,” she says. “I thought she looked beautiful.”
We largely have social media to thank for our diversification of dress, which has fostered the growth of global communities. “If you’re trans or if you have a non-binary identity or are looking for fashionable modest dress, you can find an online community,” says Alison Matthews David, an associate professor and Master of Fashion program director at Toronto’s Ryerson University. And connectivity and international migration have resulted in various style conventions reaching all corners of the globe. “What we’re seeing now is so much influence from around the world,” says Mair. “People are becoming much more individualistic in what they do and are having much more say in what becomes a convention.” It has resulted in a self-expression explosion that can be superficial (a tote bag printed with the name of the barre studio you frequent) or a core part of your identity, like your sexual orientation or heritage. Now, for example, a Muslim woman can share her cultural and religious beliefs and satisfy her sense of style through the chaste fashion items that are becoming more frequently offered by high-end brands.
For 25-year-old Marcus Ricketts, clothing is a conduit to confidence. “Anything that helps you feel like yourself will definitely give you an advantage,” he proposes. At a recent interview for a position at a clothing store in Toronto, he wore a black T-shirt, khaki pants and a pair of Air Jordan 1s while another candidate arrived in dress shoes. Both men were hired. “For me personally, it’s not about whether it’s casual or formal,” says Ricketts. “It’s about how you feel in your skin and what you’re wearing.” In today’s uncertain times, self-confidence is the ultimate accessory.
(*Name has been changed.)
People are becoming much more individualistic in what they do and are having much more say in what becomes a convention.