My Life in a Suit

01 Sep 2002, Posted by Steven Kotler in

A T-shirts-and-shorts guy gets put in a suit—and wears nothing else for 30 days.

I’m standing in front of the mirror looking at myself. The guy staring back is familiar, but only vaguely. There’s something wrong here, something seriously wrong. The shirt I’m wearing is worth more than my car payment, the belt twice my phone bill. The suit itself—double my rent. But it’s the tie, worth thrice my gas bill, it’s the tie that’s most troubling. There’s nothing else to do but dial.

“Dad,” I say when he answers, “I’ve got a question.”
“Jesus,” he says. “A question—do you know what time it is?”
“It’s late, I know, sorry to wake you.”
“Uh-huh. What’s your question?”
“Well, I’m going out and . . . I mean . . . I just need to know if my tie matches my suit.”
There’s a long pause before my father says, “So you started the experiment.”

Last time I bought a suit, Reagan was president. It was a boxy, double-breasted behemoth, complete with shoulder pads. If I had gone in for a watch fob, you would have had to call it a zoot suit. I still have it, in a zippered bag, hanging with the other relics in the back of my closet. My father, on the other hand, has lived his life in a suit. All my memories of him are neatly pressed and coated in starch. Even in my youth, he preached appearance. He believed in a gospel that was sharply creased, neatly tucked, and cinched at the waist. And now, here it is, Day Zero of a 30-day experiment in refinement, and already, my father informs me, I have sinned. My tie does not match my shirt. I change my tie. I do so because there are rules.

Here are the rules: I will obtain three of the finest suits in the land and for the next month wear nothing else. I will wake in the morning and dress in a suit. I will wear one to walk my dog, buy groceries, and rent movies. I will wear one on dates, to dinner, and for dalliances. I will arrive at the gym in the suit and change in the locker room and work out and shower and leave—again in the suit. This is my mission: to spend 30 days of my life in a suit.

I never wore suits because they were, in my mind, another step on the long road to anonymity. I was willing to suffer many things in this life, but anonymity was not among them. So there was trepidation when my costume trunk arrived. It was big, black, and looked as though it had been routinely beaten on its transcontinental journey. Inside were the suits, 25 in all sizes, shapes, and colors, that the designers had agreed to send me for the project. Somehow I’d died and gone to account-executive heaven.

I started hanging all the candidates around my living room for a game of pick-and-choose. I was allowed only three. The rest had to go back or else—though I was tempted to keep them just to see what kind of repo man Prada would send my way.

No sooner had I finished than my neighbor knocked on my door.
“What the hell?” she asked. “You get some kind of new job as a door-to-door suit salesman?”
“No,” I said. “I just want to know, once and for all, if clothes really do make the man.”

Mark Twain was the one who wrote that clothes make the man, and he made his mark with a signature white flannel three-piece. For myself, I choose a black high-three-button Armani, a black high-three-button Calvin Klein, and a gray-and-white pin-striped Gucci. I choose two black suits because it’s been so long since I’ve worn them that the line between pimp and limp has long blurred, and I’m hedging my bets. I choose the Gucci because I figure I should try wearing a suit so fancy it might as well come with its own butler. (Not long after, Tom Cruise appeared in the pages of a magazine wearing the same Gucci suit.)

Los Angeles has a peculiar dress code. Talent—meaning actors and writers and directors—dresses down. The more successful you are, the further down you dress. It’s not unusual to bump into Brad Pitt or Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and be reaching into your pocket for spare change up until the moment you recognize them. Power—meaning agents and producers and green-lighters—dresses up. Power wears suits.

One night, I’m at a swank Hollywood bar. Everybody has that seventies haircut and those seventies clothes: dark denim and dainty tank tops. Except me. How I miss my T-shirts. I’m hampered. Picking up my drink or sitting in a chair feels like performance art. I worry about splatters, spots, things I’ve never thought much about. The angle of my tie feels off. I head to the rest room to double-check. On the way, this guy approaches me.

“So,” he says, “you’re an agent, right?”
“Come on, you’re an agent, you can tell me.”
“No, writer, journalist.”
“So, you represent screenwriters?”
“A second ago, when I said I was a writer, I wasn’t lying.”
“So you work for ICM?”
“Am I speaking Dutch?”
“But . . . you’re wearing that suit.”

One day I arrive at the dog park wearing the Gucci pinstripes. “What happened?” asks a woman I see there every day.
“Well, you usually dress like a homeless person—now you look like a million bucks.” Which is the first time I’ve ever heard anybody use the expression “You look like a million bucks,” and the first time I realize, by comparison, that my customary T-shirt and shorts come with a “spare change?” sign attached.

Just down the street from my apartment is one of L.A.’s toughest bars. You can buy anything you want out front, from poppies to prostitutes. I pass the dealers every day and always say hello. But in the suit, the looks I get are different. I’m no longer being polite. I’m not even a potential customer. I’m prey. My expensive shoes sound like a tap dancer’s as I hightail it away.

Suit wearing is not a thing that just happens. The guys I know who dress for success have always dressed for success. In grade school, it was that tennis shirt with that alligator upon the breast; in high school, it was oxford button-downs with the malleted horseman. Older age simply brought more-complete uniforms. One way or another, people who wear the suit frequently have usually worn the suit frequently.

People like me, people who didn’t wear the suit and who don’t wear the suit, rarely—unless a new job comes into the picture—transmogrify into suit wearers. You either are or you aren’t. Which means that if you’re a suit wearer, you probably don’t notice the strange things that happen to you because you’re a suit wearer, because you’ve always been a suit wearer and you think these kinds of occurrences are normal. Let me tell you, as a recent convert, there’s nothing normal about it.

First off, when you wear a suit, women who never before noticed you suddenly hit on you. It happens at grocery stores, copy shops, coffee spots. Who knew “That’s a very nice tie you’re wearing” was such a popular pick-up line?

I’m at LAX, about to fly on a ticket that cost $34. I’m early. When I ask about getting on another flight, I’m told the change will cost an extra $60. As the agent tells me this, he gives me a look I don’t recognize. And then I do. It’s the look of envious expectation. I’ve become something different: the man in a suit. The agent knows the truth about the rain of dollars in America—that rain usually falls on men in suits.

It’s not just ticket agents. One night, out for dinner with friends I’ve known since college, the check arrives and I’m the only guy to reach for his wallet. Later, I ask one of them about it.

“I didn’t realize,” he says sheepishly. “I guess, in the suit, you look a little like my father. He always picked up the tab.”

Men in suits appear older. I always thought it was just the suit—that it bestowed age like knighthood bestowed royalty. It was an add-on, an extra, like sunglasses or cuff links. I was mistaken. Men in suits look older because wearing a suit ages you. There’s toil involved in putting on a suit. Getting the tie right, for instance. It seems like such a little thing, but to do it day in and day out takes a toll.

It’s more than that. Really, what ages you is the fact that the person who stares back at you every day from the mirror looks eerily the same. Human beings are visual creatures, and our self-recollection relies heavily on visual cues. Wear a suit every day, and those cues ebb. Memories blend together. One of the fundamentals that help us distinguish time’s passage gets stripped away.

After a week in a suit, I find that I can’t differentiate the days as easily as I could before. My memory of Thursday looks like my memories of Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday. I can’t rely on clothes as a mnemonic device. In 1962, Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, a treatise on class and society, wrote that “Clothes make the poor invisible. . . . America has the best-dressed poverty the world has ever known.” I’ll tell you right now, for my money, Harrington never wore suits. Suits make the wearers invisible to themselves—and if that isn’t a form of poverty, then I don’t know what is.

If you live your life in a suit, self expression means ties. I find myself wandering the racks at Nordstrom at the Beverly Center in West L.A., because my mother tells me they have the world’s best tie collection. Except, where is it?

“What the hell happened to all the ties?” I ask the salesman.
“This is L.A.”
“No one wears ties here. We’ve been phasing out our collection. You might want to try Barneys—that’s where the entertainment lawyers shop.”

I have a new theory: One of the reasons suits have endured as long as they have is because it feels better when a woman takes a suit off a man than when other clothing is removed. Since nothing gets yanked overhead, there are no awkward positions. You are never transformed into a four-limbed priapic puppet. Suit removal becomes foreplay. Unknot the tie, undo all those shirt buttons—each a measured step, a moment of heightened anticipation. And now I have proved my theory right. Thank you, Giorgio Armani.

On one of the last nights of my experiment, I go out dancing in my suit. No place special, a gin joint with a DJ. The club is crowded, but not with guys in ties. I go with a group of people I don’t know well. There is a very fine woman among them. All night she pays me no mind. I’m a guy in a suit, part of the background.

Fuck it, I decide. I ask her to dance. She agrees. But out on the floor, I realize I can’t just shuffle around. It would be too pathetic. I have to go full-throttle. If my clothes are making an effort, I actually have to make one too. So I do the hip shake, the hip shimmy. Have you ever tried to take your tie for a moonwalk? I look like Michael Moore doing Michael Jackson. But here’s the funny thing—it worked.

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