November 1, 2014

What’s Wrong with Never Changing What You Wear to Work? The Psychology and Sociology of the Workplace Mono-Wardrobe

WORKPLACE MONO-WARDROBEHe wears the same pin-striped beige button-down shirt, solid blue tie with silver pin, pleated gray pants, silver-buckled brown belt and brown brogues day after day, week after week, month after month. Not one item is ever changed.

It’s a tasteful ensemble, obviously regularly washed or otherwise cleaned (perhaps as duplicate sets), yet somehow colleagues and management feel there’s something odd about the perpetual sameness of it all.

It makes them uneasy, the way a remnant of a spinach salad stuck between the teeth of someone’s smile does or a half-mustache (on only one side) would, even though in both cases everyone consciously understands that there is no hygiene or health issue.

That uneasiness become vastly intensified if the wardrobe has even one element that is even slightly unconventional or otherwise simply distinctive, e.g., a small blue dolphin embroidered on the tie.

What makes this uneasiness with a colleague’s mono-wardrobe somewhat difficult to comprehend is the high regard and esteem for a professional uniform that is also all that is ever worn on the job and which is generally seen as evidence of professional dependability and responsibility (and, for elite occupations, status and power), even when the outfit is a gaudy logo-festooned fast-food apron with a rubber chicken hat.

Compounding this puzzlement is the fact that the “same” outfit is far more likely to mean multiple clean and fresh copies of the same T-shirt (as is the case with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who confesses to having about 30 identical grey T-shirts), yet, when a uniform, amount to only one set of military dress, one judicial robe and wig, etc., which, from a cleanliness, wear and maintenance standpoint, should be more problematic and suspect than the multiple T-shirts.

On the other hand, professional uniforms or costumes—whether high end or low—can backfire and create another kind of unease or ridicule, purely in virtue of being uniform, apart from other factors, such as looking menacing (as do the proliferating black paramilitary uniforms of local police forces) or chicken-hat goofy.

One way that can happen is if the mandatory uniform suggests subjugation and submission (reluctant or not) to corporate and professional requirements or pressure, not unlike the impression created by chain-gang prison laborer uniforms.

Two Questions

The issues of prescribed uniforms aside, there are two questions to pose regarding a (freely) chosen mono-wardrobe:

1. Why would a mono-wardrobe be perceived negatively by co-workers?

2. Why would it be the wardrobe of choice for anyone?

Among the possible reasons are these:

  • Impression of low socio-economic status, to the extent the mono-wardrobe suggests being unable to afford more clothes. On the flip side, i.e., from the perspective of the mono-wardrobist, sticking to one outfit (without dozens of copies of it) may reflect a healthy indifference to consumerism, irrespective of whether it is affordable, while allowing that in some instances the reason is indeed that multi-wardrobes are simply unaffordable. it may not be.
  • presumed abnormal socialization, evidenced by disregard of the prevailing norm of multiple wardrobes (which, of course, begs the question of why that norm is favored in the first place. We can easily imagine or note the opposite, viz., cultures, societies, etc., in which dressing differently from day to day would be weird or suspect, e.g., monasteries.) From the mono-wardrobist perspective, such “abnormality” is actually healthy independence from the shackles of arbitrary conformity.
  • suspicion of(over-)compensation or camouflage for some unattractive physical characteristic, e.g., a pair of custom-made elevator shoes, or black top-light bottom combination to conceal a man’s weight problem (or light top-black bottom, among women)—black tops also superbly compensating for any tendency to sweat profusely, by concealing sweat spots and streaks better than any other color.

This take is incomplete without adding the reverse: enhancement of some very attractive physical characteristic, e.g., exclusively wearing black as an enhancing contrast with what has been called a “winter” complexion (very white or sallow), in the way lipstick functions as a “mono-accessory” for anyone who wears it to the office every day.

  • impression of posturing to make a social or fashion statement, e.g., as a rebel or anarchist, as unworldly, as exempt from the rules and norms of the sheeple or as contemptuous of fashion fetishism (in the second sense of changing attire just to stay trendy, rather than in the sense of a mono-wardrobe fixation). A mono-wardrobist might agree with this, but without calling it “posturing”—preferring instead a term like “pioneering” or “crusading” for a cause.
  • perception as boring, in virtue of projecting a stagnant, stale image, especially when it is conventional or nerdy. From the mono-wardrobist perspective, this sameness may be simply a matter of sticking with what works, having a strong internal locus of control that de-emphasizes externals and/or having confidence in being interesting (irrespective of what is worn).
  • suggestion of being mono-mood, with no shades or changes of emotional states, like a nondescript emotionally flat, self-controlled Clark Kent, unwilling to liberate or reveal his hidden Superman (whose duo-wardrobe of cape, tights, boots and business suit plus geek glasses capitalizes on the negative perceptions of him as weak, self-effacing and timid, thereby deflecting any suspicions that he may be Superman). While this mono-mood hypothesis merits empirical investigation, for at least its statistical validity, if it is correct, a mono-mood mono-wardrobist can be predicted to very calmly deny or confirm it.
  • perception of laziness, being unwilling to make the effort to shop for and switch clothing—something Albert Einstein could have countered when he reportedly justified limiting his formal wardrobe to a couple of identical gray suits in order to not waste brain power. Ditto for President Obama, according to a May 2012 Forbes article titled “18 Famous People Who Always Dress the Same”. In both Einstein and the president’s case, their mono-wardrobist or “fashion minimalist” tendencies fall under the rubric of “mental economizing”.
  • interpretation as the vanity of a narcissistic desire to be “special”, i.e., wanting to be “different” from everybody else, in terms of the appearance of the attire,and/or by virtue of wearing it every day. (Yes, there is an irony and paradox in dressing the same every day in order to be different every day.)

A mono-wardrobist may see this quite differently, both philosophically and psychologically: Instead of any desire to appear or be special, one of the motivations may be to appear or be ideal, i.e., perfect, allowing that everyone else is welcome to be ideal in just the same way (which is not possible when the objective is to compete for the explicitly competitive title of “special”).

Notice how some of these analyses answer both questions, when suitably nuanced to have positive connotations with regard to the second question, why anybody would choose a mono-wardrobe. For example, as noted above, “low socio-economic” status may be cited as a badge of honor by those who profess indifference to material wealth, high social status and otherwise keeping ahead of the Joneses.

Here, think “Zen monk”—which given the influences of monks and meditation on hardly a pauper, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, may partially explain his trademark, ever-visible simple black mock turtleneck, blue jeans and sneakers. (The rest of the explanation, excerpted in a article, “Steve Jobs on Why He Wore Turtlenecks”, goes like this:

Based on the strong impression of strong bonding Sony post-war factory uniforms created among workers, Jobs came to like the idea of having a uniform for himself, both because of its daily convenience (the rationale he claimed) and its ability to convey a signature style. “So I asked [designer] Issey [Miyake] to make me some of his black turtlenecks that I liked, and he made me like a hundred of them.”)

The same kind of positive defense of mono-wardrobes goes for “abnormal socialization”, to the extent that the mono-wardrobist, turning the tables, finds normal socialization and its conformity suspect. Likewise, “laziness”, more favorably recast, becomes “economizing”, as the Einstein and Obama rationales suggest.

Cut from a Different Daily Cloth

As for any specialness or uniqueness of mono-wardrobes, meet local Vancouver artist “Jason” (shown here), who gives expression of individuality an interesting reverse twist and boost: He says that, rather than harboring any aspiration to be seen as special himself, one of his purposes is to encourage others to express or create their own identities."JASON"

In addition to his artistic works, Jason is notable for his distinctive vocational-avocational mono-wardrobe consisting of a unique ensemble of strips of memorabilia and other personally significant and iconic materials.These decorative items dangle from what resembles a festooned tunic and pants, topped off with a black bandana, and black shoes to match.

Jason’s commitment to his mono-wardrobe is beyond question, and as durable as the sole set he has worn as his only attire for decades and in all seasons, dating back to his first Sahara desert encounters with Bedouins and other inspiring desert dwellers.

Of course, creating the impression of being distinctive doesn’t necessarily imply the desire to do so—despite the common correlation between these, much as what an artist is trying to elicit doesn’t always equate with what (s)he is trying to express. Reflecting (on) his interest in the values of the “Burning Man” festivals and movement espousing ten principles that emphasize self-reliance, self-expression, “decommodification” and community spirit, Jason’s stated his take on his mono-wardrobe this way:

“I never wanted to be someone who created a style of clothing to become a fashion trend, I don’t believe we need to wear clothes to show our status and I am wearing these clothes because I’m comfortable in them.” (which, of course, leaves open the question of whether and why he would be uncomfortable in anything else).

So, if, like Jason, you choose to go mono-wardrobe, be aware that you may be eliciting unexpected responses and messages that you had no intention of expressing. Conversely, if you are judging the mono-wardrobists, be prepared for their take on you…

…namely, “Why on Earth would anyone want or have to wear something different every day?”


Read more in Dress Codes

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).