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On ‘over-dressing’

JJ Katz

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I’ve often been asked by less clothes-conscious friends and acquaintances the open-ended question of how they should dress, in reference to a specific place or event. A sub-set of that very broad inquiry is: “am I over-dressed?” and it’s one that sometimes requires a bit of contextualisation. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

When clothing and other external signifiers were strictly codified on the basis of propriety, the question would be more aptly stated as: “am I dressed correctly”. In the presence of many, precisely defined categories of formality and types of occasion, even civilian dress conformed to rigid standards, akin to military uniform. Any deviation was deemed gauche and if you go a bit back in time that norm applied quite far down the socio-economic scale, with allowances for material means. That set of conditions has almost entirely disappeared and was already greatly reduced by the middle of the 20th C.

During the transitional period, in the later part of the 20th C., from the late-traditional to the modern concepts of gentility, the issue of overdressing took on a different cast, from strict social observance to a matter of personal politeness. It became indelicate, perhaps even unkind, to wear clothes that would “show up” your hosts or the majority of people present; that might make others feel uncomfortable.

If you think this sounds like the contemporary ideal, you’re missing a lot of context. Even then, it was understood that most would try to dress as well as they could manage; to avoid slovenliness. There were still some fairly widely accepted standards across place and class.

My grandfather, born in 1900, who was always considered particularly polite, friendly and approachable, wore a jacket and tie basically always, unless directly engaged in sport. To be ‘over-dressed’ one really had to overreach: perhaps wearing morning dress to a very modest wedding or a noticeably sharp, three-piece suit to a country lunch. There were, I think, finer gradations in the female sphere but the point is that, depending on the country, well into the 1970s (even later in Europe), one could dress quite smartly without fearing they’d be so over-dressed as to occasion remark or give umbrage.

Cultural norms have moved on significantly from around the turn of the 21st C. Reverse opprobrium towards any sort of historically formal or semi-formal attire has expanded from a minority section of the itself numerically small counter-culture to become much more common, though still concentrated in specific environments and sub-cultures.

Among very young people or in certain industries, practically any item of clothing one would not expect to use when exercising vigorously can be considered being ‘dressed up’. A man in chinos, boat shoes and a button down is said to be “duded up”; my daughter’s male friends own “dressy” jeans and there is such a thing as an unironic “smart” t-shirt.

In other words, two key conditions have changed radically in my so-far-brief lifetime: the degree of casualness across the spectrum of occasions and the shift of mainstream, institutionally recommended, conformist norms against formality and elegance. I think that this should recast an individual’s response towards very concept of over-dressing. I am aware that I have entirely ignored the far-left critique of ‘dressing smartly’ entirely; here I want to simply address mainstream, majority attitudes and their ramifications.

So, in a post-aesthetic society that has, in some ways, returned to an illiberal construct of ‘correct’ vs. ‘wrong’ clothes, should individualists with an interest in sartorial expression ever give a damn about over-dressing? Can there even be such a thing? The concept needs to be refined, clearly.

That said, when asked, my opinion is that there are still two limited situations where a person could be said to be over-dressed:
  • If the expensiveness or structured nature of your clothes prevents you from taking part in the focal activity of a gathering, you are probably overdressed.
  • If you are a guest to an event and it has been made explicitly clear that there is some sort of ‘dress code’, however defined, try to stick to it.
Lastly, a couple of nuances. Even if they accepted my philosophical take on over-dressing, many otherwise elegant people would still feel uncomfortable if they stuck out. To them, I say: it seems safe to be one notch more smartly dress than the mean.

If most guys are in jeans, graphic tees and trainers no-one you need to care about can object to you wearing some basic chinos, or a white t-shirt or some camp mocs or all three. If they are that prescriptive and narrow minded, you are not the one in the wrong. Similarly, if everyone is in the current service-industry uniform of grey suit and dress shirt without a tie, simply adding one cannot be honestly objected to. As a side note, the same goes for dressing one notch ‘lower’.

Most of the men I like and respect have very little interest in and flair in their appearance. That’s fine. But I’ve never met a guy who is actually outspoken against someone else dressing well who wasn’t a complete and total waste of time, on most levels.
 

Andy57

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Derek has a good article on Die Workwear! on the nature of dress codes. I'm not sure I agree with all of his arguments, but it's a thought-provoking read.

In general, I don't believe it is possible to be over dressed. Maybe I just don't care enough about what others may think or how they react. But there are caveats:

That said, when asked, my opinion is that there are still two limited situations where a person could be said to be over-dressed:
  • If the expensiveness or structured nature of your clothes prevents you from taking part in the focal activity of a gathering, you are probably overdressed.
  • If you are a guest to an event and it has been made explicitly clear that there is some sort of ‘dress code’, however defined, try to stick to it.
I think this is reasonable. I wouldn't wear a suit to change the oil in my car (not that I would change my own oil anyway, but I'm making a point) or while grilling hamburgers at a picnic, say. And I think it is rude to deliberately ignore an explicit dress code that is part of an invitation.

Other than that, I find when I wear a dinner jacket out to dinner with my wife we are quite often dressed wildly differently than all other diners at the restaurant. It bothers us not at all. And why should it?
 

am55

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Oh, how I have longed for the occasion to post these...



I guess the clothes do not prevent him from taking part in the focal activity of the gathering, so your point stands!
 

dauster

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Frankly, if I am overdressed I feel stupid and it makes me uncomfortable.

But I do regret (in this particular sense) that I moved to the suburbs of San Francisco. Other than the occasional jeans and shirt combo at dinner I need nothing else but basketball shorts and a t-shirts here. The only reason I dress up is for work. Maybe I don't know the right crowd but I am missing the overall lack of culture in the US. Yes, technically I could go to the Ballet in SF (no interest) or NYC/ East Coast has maybe a better sense of fashion/ culture but I guess what I am feeling is more that pretty much everything here in the Bay Area is considered dressy and life is very much focused on sports / leisure wear. Maybe it's time to move back to Europe :)
 

aj805

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I think this stuff is now so locale- and peer-group specific that it is difficult to come up with many useful guidelines in 2020.

The whole strata of "Society" in which such customs developed is now gone, and so too then is the concept of dress "rules".

My idea is that if you are in a cosmopolitan city you can pretty much dress however you want, but a suit or dinner attire will work better for more upscale or formal occasions, and if it's really important what others think you just have to know who'll be there. Conversely, if you are not in a cosmopolitan city there is a high likelihood that you're overdressed and will elicit the contempt of others if you wear anything more refined than a button-down shirt with jeans.

I suspect that even these scant remnants of custom may not survive the changes that are happening to social life this year.
 

comrade

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Frankly, if I am overdressed I feel stupid and it makes me uncomfortable.

But I do regret (in this particular sense) that I moved to the suburbs of San Francisco. Other than the occasional jeans and shirt combo at dinner I need nothing else but basketball shorts and a t-shirts here. The only reason I dress up is for work. Maybe I don't know the right crowd but I am missing the overall lack of culture in the US. Yes, technically I could go to the Ballet in SF (no interest) or NYC/ East Coast has maybe a better sense of fashion/ culture but I guess what I am feeling is more that pretty much everything here in the Bay Area is considered dressy and life is very much focused on sports / leisure wear. Maybe it's time to move back to Europe :)
At the Opera you'll actually see men who even dress
to Style Forum standards. Me for example. But not the
percentage one would observe in New York or Milan.
BTW, I live in the SF suburbs- MenloPark. There are
evidently enough style-conscious men around here to
support a branch of Wilkes Bashford for more than two
decades. One does not see many of them out and about,
however. It's mostly tech-slovenly.
 
Last edited:

dauster

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At the Opera you'll actually see men who even dress to Style Forum standards.
Me for example. But not the percentage one would observe in New York or Milan.
BTW, I live in the SF suburbs- MenloPark. There are evidently enough style-conscious
men around here to support a branch of Wilkes Bashford for more than two decades.
One does not see many of them out and about, however. It's mostly tech-slovenly.
true I always wonder where they hide:) I guess what I am really missing is a certain feeling like when you walk around mayfair in london or walk down avenue de montaigne in Paris. I know it's not fair to compare this to the Bay Area but I am getting tired of the tech crowd and even going to total wine or similar stores - it feels a bit soulless - I guess that goes for most american suburbs.
 

comrade

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I guess what I am really missing is a certain feeling like when you walk around mayfair in london or walk down avenue de montaigne in Paris.

Or Upper Madison Ave (NYC) at lunch hour.
 

papado

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I guess what I am really missing is a certain feeling like when you walk around mayfair in london or walk down avenue de montaigne in Paris.

Or Upper Madison Ave (NYC) at lunch hour.
I think NYC has already been taking over by the vested bros so I wouldn't say the streets are as marvelous as we idealize them. Heck, even at fancy (michelin starred) restaurants with a 'jacket required' policy you'll barely see anyone dressed up or actually looking like they put effort into their appearance.
 

Andy57

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My idea is that if you are in a cosmopolitan city you can pretty much dress however you want, but a suit or dinner attire will work better for more upscale or formal occasions, and if it's really important what others think you just have to know who'll be there. Conversely, if you are not in a cosmopolitan city there is a high likelihood that you're overdressed and will elicit the contempt of others if you wear anything more refined than a button-down shirt with jeans.

I suspect that even these scant remnants of custom may not survive the changes that are happening to social life this year.
Comments like this make me sad. I live in Silicon Valley, which is not remotely anyone's idea of a cosmopolitan city (ah, but it is home!) and yet I "dress pretty much however I want". My suits work for whatever occasion I choose to make them work (most recently for the rare outing to Costco or to the dentist). I put on a dinner jacket every Friday, at the moment. Why do I do these things? Because I want to and because I don't need anyone's permission to do so.

I don't understand this all-consuming concern about what other people are thinking about the clothes you are wearing. You'd probably be shocked to discover that they are probably not thinking anything at all. I guarantee if you were to see me, I will not be thinking of you or about you, at all.

At the Opera you'll actually see men who even dress
to Style Forum standards. Me for example. But not the
percentage one would observe in New York or Milan.
BTW, I live in the SF suburbs- MenloPark. There are
evidently enough style-conscious men around here to
support a branch of Wilkes Bashford for more than two
decades. One does not see many of them out and about,
however. It's mostly tech-slovenly.
I don't shop at Wilkes-Bashford, but you might see me out and about from time to time. I don't get up to Menlo all that much these days, though.

true I always wonder where they hide:) I guess what I am really missing is a certain feeling like when you walk around mayfair in london or walk down avenue de montaigne in Paris. I know it's not fair to compare this to the Bay Area but I am getting tired of the tech crowd and even going to total wine or similar stores - it feels a bit soulless - I guess that goes for most american suburbs.
I'm unclear what kind of experience you are expecting from a visit to Total Wine.

Stop worrying and stop trying to fit in. Dress how you want. If you believe the opinions of others are preventing you from dressing how you want, then at least stop whining about it. Complaining that where you live is somehow inhibiting you from dressing how you want seems to me completely ridiculous.
 

dauster

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Comments like this make me sad. I live in Silicon Valley, which is not remotely anyone's idea of a cosmopolitan city (ah, but it is home!) and yet I "dress pretty much however I want". My suits work for whatever occasion I choose to make them work (most recently for the rare outing to Costco or to the dentist). I put on a dinner jacket every Friday, at the moment. Why do I do these things? Because I want to and because I don't need anyone's permission to do so.

I don't understand this all-consuming concern about what other people are thinking about the clothes you are wearing. You'd probably be shocked to discover that they are probably not thinking anything at all. I guarantee if you were to see me, I will not be thinking of you or about you, at all.


I don't shop at Wilkes-Bashford, but you might see me out and about from time to time. I don't get up to Menlo all that much these days, though.


I'm unclear what kind of experience you are expecting from a visit to Total Wine.

Stop worrying and stop trying to fit in. Dress how you want. If you believe the opinions of others are preventing you from dressing how you want, then at least stop whining about it. Complaining that where you live is somehow inhibiting you from dressing how you want seems to me completely ridiculous.
did not expect such a harsh response to how I feel but it's the internet after all:)

here comes the real talk:

to be frank the way you dress seems "costumey" to me and while I applaud you for living your life the way you want and for dressing up at Costco I don't get anything out of that at all. For me dressing well is "only fun" when I am in the right environment - which makes it tough in the Bay and at least in my case, I am looking for an certain (while elusive) feeling that comes with it. I lived in London and Frankfurt before and found it "more satisfying" to my sartorial taste. If that's too whiny for you oh wellz.
My reference to Total Wine was in regards to a soulless store that may have expensive / quality items I am looking to buy but I would prefer to buy them in a nicer environment and not next to Marshalls and Target.
 

Andy57

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did not expect such a harsh response to how I feel but it's the internet after all:)
I did not mean it to be harsh. But, as you say, it's the internet, after all.

here comes the real talk:

to be frank the way you dress seems "costumey" to me and while I applaud you for living your life the way you want and for dressing up at Costco I don't get anything out of that at all. For me dressing well is "only fun" when I am in the right environment - which makes it tough in the Bay and at least in my case, I am looking for an certain (while elusive) feeling that comes with it. I lived in London and Frankfurt before and found it "more satisfying" to my sartorial taste. If that's too whiny for you oh wellz.
My reference to Total Wine was in regards to a soulless store that may have expensive / quality items I am looking to buy but I would prefer to buy them in a nicer environment and not next to Marshalls and Target.
To be frank, it should surprise you not at all that I don't care what you think about the way I choose to dress or live my life. If you are too timid to be yourself because of concern over what others may think, that is entirely your problem. Same thing if it's only fun for you in the right environment.

It's difficult to put in the correct words, but complaining about being unable to dress a certain way because other people aren't doing it too, or because you don't live in the right place, just seems so sad. I do not mean to be condescending, but this isn't a dress rehearsal.
 

Chaconne

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If the new normal cements the demise of the suit being the uniform needed for business and formal occasions it seems like that would mean people will eventually stop asking what you are dressed in a suit FOR and just assume you like to wear suits.
 

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