Clockwise, from top left: Steve Jobs, Tom Wolfe, Andy Warhol in their respective uniforms.
Being a Details reader means you're interested in dressing well. I'm with you. I would love to dress well.
But being a sharp dresser requires attention, time, and money, and seeing as these things are in chronic short supply around my house, I've been casting about for some sartorial shortcuts. Actually, I've always had one particular shortcut in mind; I've just never had the courage to attempt it.
I'm thinking, of course, of wearing the exact same thing every day. This is hardly an original idea—plenty of noteworthy men have adopted a signature uniform, particularly those working in artistic fields. Stanley Kubrick owned a dozen sets of the same slouchy outfit (chinos, blue shirt, cotton jacket, sneakers), and Hitchcock's closet was stocked with identical dark-blue suits. In 1898, the French avant-garde composer Erik Satie used a small inheritance to purchase a dozen identical chestnut-colored velvet suits (with the same number of matching bowler hats). In the late 1970s, Andy Warhol's uniform was Levi's 501s, a button-down shirt, a striped tie, and a navy blazer, often accessorized with a Polaroid camera around his neck. Tom Wolfe was never without a white suit; Steve Jobs had a lifetime supply of black mock turtlenecks. And that's not even mentioning the many fashion designers who wear more or less the same thing every day.
In all of the above cases, the uniform creates the impression that its wearer is too busy with higher-level tasks to waste time worrying over what to wear. (This is President Obama's position, who says he wears only blue or gray suits in order to "pare down decisions.") In my own case, this is an aura I would be happy to project, even if my real reasons for uniform dressing are not quite so lofty.
From left: President Obama, Alfred Hitchcock in their signature suits.
The truth is that no matter how much shopping I do, I never seem to end up with more than one or maybe two really good-looking outfits. And once I find the perfect wardrobe staple it becomes my go-to, which means I wear things out very quickly—and then continue wearing them long past their prime, until I'm the guy walking around with frayed crotch seams and a gaping hole in the elbow of his favorite cardigan. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to keep my closet at least somewhat diversified. If I have a good pair of jeans, I'll look for chinos. If I have an excellent navy sweater, I'll try to find an olive or maroon one next time.
Recently, I resolved to try the opposite approach and invested no small amount of time scrolling through various style blogs in search of precisely the right items to purchase in duplicate and wear in an endless, effortless loop. In this quest, I have a couple of advantages: As a freelance writer I don't have to worry about meeting any sort of office dress code, and as a Los Angeles resident I don't have to contend with foul—or even very different—weather.
But as I conducted my search, doubt started to creep in. Because it's not simply a matter of finding a single outfit that's comfortable, durable, and stylish. The ideal uniform should also convey, in a highly distilled form, whatever image it is I'm trying to project to the world. I hate to use the phrase "personal branding," but that's the idea. Since your clothes are a huge part of the impression you make on others, this is especially true if you appear to be wearing the same thing all the time.
In other words, finding the ideal uniform is not just a matter of picking out the perfect sweater or jeans or button-down, it's deciding how you want to be seen by the world. And that's not something to be taken lightly or decided in a five-hour Pinterest binge.
After looking back through the list of noteworthy men I mentioned earlier, I realized that most of them adopted their signature wardrobes in middle age or later. That may be another secret of its appeal. Like an ascot, a pipe, or a beret, the uniform may be best left to those who have lived long enough to convincingly give off the impression that they don't give a fuck—because they don't actually have to.
—Mason Currey is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. His first book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, was published by Knopf last April. Follow him on Twitter at @masoncurrey.