Buzz Bissinger, author of “Friday Night Lights,” writes about fashion.
March 22 , 2019
To: David M. Solomon, John E. Waldron and Stephen M. Scherr
From: Buzz Bissinger
Subject: New dress code at Goldman Sachs
As someone keenly interested in changing trends in fashion, I read with interest your memo of March 5, 2019, to the employees of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. announcing a change to a clothing environment that you describe as “firmwide flexible.” Although it sounds a little bit like you are trying to create an alternative to Spanx — FIRMWIDE FLEXIBLE, EXCLUSIVELY FROM GOLDMAN SACHS! — I realize that the intent is pure, or sort of pure.
It is good of you to realize “the changing nature of workplaces generally in favor of a more casual environment.” But I would not call the environment you are trying to create exactly casual.
As you write: “Goldman Sachs has a broad and diverse client base around the world, and we want all of our clients to feel comfortable with and confident in our team, so please dress in a manner that is consistent with your clients’ expectations. . . . Casual dress is not appropriate every day and for every interaction and we trust you will consistently exercise good judgment in this regard. All of us know what is and is not appropriate for the workplace.”
In other words, a shift to more “casual” attire is fine, as long as the choices are dictated by what others want, others think, others find appropriate. Which, of course, is antithetical to what fashion should be about: individuality, freedom, self-expression. What one wears, not just on heightened days but every day, should never be captive to anyone else except yourself. It is only clothing, which, as far as I know, is not harmful or lethal — unlike, for example, subprime mortgages.
But in our society of self-suppression, nothing is more subject to instant judgment than clothing. You are defined by what you wear, and if you wear anything different from the mainstream, the furtive stares come out. Then come the snickers. Then come the inevitable stereotypes associated with styles of dress. Worst of all comes your own overwhelming self-consciousness, the sense that somehow, some way, you are actually being offensive by choosing to wear what you want, and that it’s better to be a lemming of conformity, boxy and boring, stultified and stifled, but not sticking out. So you jettison what is most sacred of all, your own sense of self.
I know this cycle well. For the first 40 years of my life, I was so repressed, so terrified of outside judgment, that I refused to wear a single stitch of leather, even a jacket, despite a lifelong leather fetish.
It was only in my late 50s that I began to embrace my love of fashion; to study the great fashion weeks of New York and Paris and London and the runways of sin and sex and creation; and to put aside the idiocy that it is taboo for men to like women’s clothes, and vice versa, in favor of the truth: that the line between what constitutes male and what constitutes female is both arbitrary and soooooo boring. I began to develop a look — my look and my look only — leathered out, accessorized by rings and bracelets and necklaces and sunglasses, and a touch of mascara and eyeliner, if I’m feeling it, and boots ranging in heel from no inch to four-inch. I may be the only person on the face of the planet besides Paul Manafort to own an ostrich-skin jacket. Clothing makes me feel alive.
For too many years I dressed up only inside my house. My wife, Lisa, knew, of course, and was always encouraging me to forget what the hell other people might think and just go with it, to celebrate myself because I was worthy of celebration. But I preferred privacy, except for the time the audio repair guy was at the house and I came bounding downstairs, unsuspecting, in leggings and high-heeled boots, and deftly avoided what could have been an awkward situation by talking with great authority about the Eagles’ chances for next season. He didn’t bat an eye — although, on the other hand, he never came back.
I was terrified the first time I went outside dressed the way I wanted to look. The looks were withering, virtually all of them from that blandest and sartorially saddest of all species, the Middle-Aged White Male. Bit by bit I got over it. I realized there were times I overdid it (I suppose that thigh-high black leather boots on the Acela midweek can be a wee bit over the top), just as I realized there were times I underdid it (thigh-high black leather boots on the Acela at midweek feel great with elbow-length black leather gloves). I began to consistently feel liberated. When I get those nasty little stares now, I stare right back at clothing so drab and dreary it blots out the sun. That usually gets the starers to stop.
Just as your employees at Goldman Sachs have clients, so do I as a journalist and nonfiction author. I am interviewing Marine veterans of the battle of Okinawa. They are in their 90s, and I am afraid that if I show up in head-to-toe leather with my nails done blood red, they not only won’t connect with me but also might have a heart attack. So I forgo the leather pants, wear boots with a half-inch heel and skip the nails altogether. I am selling out myself. I feel lousy about that. But I do feel as if the essential core of me remains, just as I am also beginning to realize that given what these men saw at Okinawa, they could not care less what I look like.
I apologize to the three of you for going off a little bit. Judging from media reaction, everyone seems quite excited about your new casual dress code. But as long as you ask employees to consider what others expect them to wear and what others expect them to express, and to submit to judgments that reflect the despair of the arbiters’ own narrow lives, then it’s all pretty meaningless. If a client is so obtuse and myopic as to not like one of your employees because of the way he or she dresses, there is a solution: Drop the client.
The world is here to be seen, and we are to be seen within it, not rendered invisible and interchangeable.