‘Seinfeld’ Reminds Us that Clothes Make the Man

Written for Acculturated

October 2nd, 2017

There have been a lot of great lines about fashion over the years. Designers, actors, and even stylish athletes have offered aphoristic advice on how to dress well. Edith Head, who with eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design knows a thing or two about fashion, remarked, “You can have anything you want if you dress for it.” From Cary Grant came words Millennials ought to heed: “It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression.” And GQ’s most stylish man of 2016, Roger Federer, has advised everyone to “make sure you wear the clothes and not [let] the clothes wear you.”

But one of my favorite quips comes from an unexpected source: Jerry Seinfeld.

The line I’m referring to is from his legendary sitcom, Seinfeld, which was well-known for incorporating the comedian’s observational humor and tackling the minutiae of life. In one episode, “The Pilot,” Jerry gives some insight into why fashion matters. In the episode, Jerry berates the perpetually piteous George Costanza for wearing sweatpants. George states that he wears them because he finds sweatpants comfortable, to which Jerry responds, “You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You’re telling the world, ‘I give up. I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.’”

Jerry’s comment hits the nail on the head. George’s use of the word “comfort” is code for lazy. Dressing nicely takes effort, and when someone says they’d rather be comfortable what they mean is they’d rather not put in the effort. While they may not give it much thought, or even have vocalized it before, most people realize this on some level. It’s why we would consider sweatpants inappropriate attire for a wedding or job interview.

This is not stereotyping as we typically think of the word. Stereotypes regarding race or gender or even height are assumptions based on qualities that are outside a person’s control. There is no connection between one’s race or gender and any one virtue or vice. There are, however, connections between our choices and how the world perceives us. For example, even as attitudes regarding body art change, getting a tattoo requires some sort of rebellious streak. So, too, does engaging in drug use and promiscuous sex. This is not, by any means, a suggestion that everyone with a tattoo is a druggie with a new sexual partner every week, but they are, more or less, expressions of the same quality: a person who drinks heavily or does drugs is more likely to have a tattoo than someone who abstains from drugs and alcohol and vice versa. Sure enough, there is a quantifiable connection between tattoos and risky behavior. Is it any surprise then that getting tatted up may limit opportunities in certain career fields?

The same holds true in the fashion world as well. How we choose to dress is closely linked to our personality and values, making it an easy way to learn about someone based on the decisions they make about how they look. Even with something as fairly consistent as men’s suits there are millions of different designs and patterns to choose from, plus shoes, ties, shirts, and a host of other elements of an ensemble that must be selected. And that’s just with one type of outfit; casual attire come with a similar set of decisions. Plus, there’s the overarching decision what sort of outfit, formal or informal or somewhere in between, you want to wear to begin with.

What we wear every day is the result of an incredible convergence of fashion decisions. Dark, conservative colors or bright, flamboyant colors? Gym shorts or chinos? T-shirt or button down? Everything about our appearances is chosen and every choice is revealing.

The sweatpants episode revealed something about George Costanza that Seinfeldviewers probably already knew: George dressed lazily because he was lazy. Don’t be like George. Consider how your choices will influence how you’re perceived, what message you’re sending with your appearance and whether it’s indicative of a quality you should be proud of. In other words: Think before you dress.