I recently took a pair of brogues to the cobbler for a shine, one of the little rituals, half preparation, half procrastination, that I find myself performing as a new semester draws near. Of course, we are not living in normal times. Because of COVID-19, I am again teaching my classes online, which means my students cannot see my shoes. So why go through the bother and expense of a professional shoeshine? Two reasons, I think. First, I want to support local small businesses, whether the cobbler or my favorite coffee shop, which have been hit hard by coronavirus. The second reason is a little more complicated; it relates more to the psychology of working at home.
When I teach online, my students see the inside of my house. They meet the dog I recently adopted, Winston, a chocolate lab. (My classes so far have put him to sleep.) My house serves as both my classroom and my office. Since I also work on my scholarship and other writing projects exclusively in my house, it contains all the books I need for my teaching and research. This shrinking of boundaries and personal space reminds me of the feeling I experienced as a graduate student, living in a modest apartment. The feeling grew particularly intense after I completed my coursework and focused on writing my dissertation. Some nights I lay awake, looking at the books I needed to read, thinking about all the arguments that might refute the one I was trying to develop and, worst of all, the possibility that another scholar might have already published a better version of my idea.
Different strategies made that experience feel less claustrophobic. To remain sane and productive, my classmates and I marked boundaries between our work on our dissertations and the rest of our lives. A friend borrowed a technique from John Cheever. Each morning he showered, dressed, walked around the block, then returned to his studio apartment to sit down at his desk, and do a day’s work. Cheever’s version of the method was more elaborate. One of his biographers described the writer’s “daily routine”:
Each morning he dressed in his good suit and hat and rode down in the elevator with the other professional men who lived in the building. They got off on the first floor, however, while he continued to the basement. There he settled to work at a makeshift desk in the windowless storage room. He stripped to his shorts, hung up his coat and pants, and hammered away at his typewriter in the two-fingered style he had taught himself. He put the suit back on at lunchtime and at the end of the day for the elevator ride upstairs.
Cheever performed the idea that he was leaving his home, even though he commuted no farther than the basement storage room. He wore his “good suit and hat” like an actor whose wardrobe helps him get into character. His clothes told him he was leaving his home, although he never left the building. The ordinariness of Cheever’s clothes reinforced the point; he dressed like the other professionals in the elevator, heading to work in work clothes.
This strategy relied on an idea that soon lost much of its popularity: namely, that work clothes dignify their wearer. Remembering his graduate education at Yale, Mark Edmundson recalled:
It was 1979, and I had tumbled out of the garden of youth, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll into the kingdom of the “seniors.” The Yale English-department faculty was mostly white, male, and bald or graying. They wore ties, tweed jackets, thick glasses, and sensible shoes. Some of them even smoked pipes. It was the most aggressively senior group of people that I had yet encountered.
In his 2002 book, Uniforms, Paul Fussell called this look a “daily academic uniform, “For male professors, daily academic uniform is either a suit (rare) or tweed jacket with gray flannel (sometimes corduroy) trousers.” Fussell elaborated on the “practically compulsory” “daily get-up of gray flannel trousers and tweed jacket, often, of course, with leather elbow patches, suggestive at once of two honorable conditions: poverty and learning.” Professorial dress, though, significantly changed during the second half of the twentieth century. I do not remember seeing any professors at my undergraduate or graduate institutions dressed that way, including Mark Edmundson, who taught at the University of Virginia when I received a PhD in 2000. None resembled “the tweeds” (as Edmundson called his professors). At their most formal, most of the male professors in the English department wore a blazer or a tie (rarely both) when called upon to introduce a distinguished visiting speaker, but they did not look fully at ease donning these accouterments, occasionally touching their sleeves like bar mitzvah boys about to read their Torah portion. With only small variations, many professors and students dressed alike. When I ran into my professors off campus, bumping into them in a coffee shop or a bookstore, they typically dressed as they did on campus.
COVID-19 only accelerated this trend, blurring the distinction between personal and professional dress so thoroughly that a number of commentators recently speculated that “work clothes might be dead for good” (as a writer for The Atlantic put it). Leisure wear and its hybrid forms abound, including “athleisure” puzzlingly designed to be worn from “work to workout.”
This flexibility does not come without a cost. Work clothes fulfill an important need to honor both work and leisure by insisting one should not be confused for the other. The line between them may be drawn more fancifully or sternly. Isabel Allende recently described her writing routine to an interviewer:
I get up every morning around six. First I have a cup of coffee, then a shower and then I put on full makeup as if I was going out to the opera. I get dressed and put on high heels, and then I climb the stairs to this attic where I work. I won’t see anyone, not even the mailman, yet I dress up for myself.
Not all of these strategies involve clothes. When the critic Michael Korda watched Graham Greene write The End of the Affair, Korda noticed that the novelist used a meticulous method to compose an anguished novel:
Greene’s self-discipline was such that, no matter what, he always stopped at five hundred words, even if it left him in the middle of a sentence. It was as if he brought to writing the precision of a watchmaker, or perhaps it was that in a life full of moral uncertainties and confusion he simply needed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute.
The more chaotic a life, the greater the need for self-imposed rules. With so many of us working at home, even little gestures can be useful. The fact that fewer workplaces retain clear norms for professional attire only makes it more important for each of us to make our own version, if only one noticeable to ourselves. So my advice is get your shoes shined, walk around the block or, if you prefer, dress as if you were going to the opera, before you sit down at your computer for another day of socially distanced work. — DAVID CAPLAN
David Caplan is Charles M. Weis Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University.