Culture

Should You Make Like Mark Zuckerberg And Wear The Same Thing Every Day?

Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama and Steve Jobs have all done it. Will throwing out your glad rags make you more productive?

Check out Social Overlord Mark Zuckerberg, always wearing the same grey T-shirt and charcoal hoodie. You don’t need a facial recognition algorithm to know who he is.

Recently Zuckerberg did a Q&A at Facebook headquarters and was asked why he always wears the same grey T-shirt. He answered: “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how best to serve this community. […] I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous.”

This was a pre-approved question, and Zuckerberg answered it in a PR-friendly way that flatteringly suggested his dedication to helping others. If choosing clothes is a method of communicating one’s personality to the world, then claiming to deliberately opt out of that choice seeks to evoke the humility practised by men and women who take Christian and Buddhist holy orders.

But Zuckerberg is not a monk with a spiritual or charitable vocation. He is the head of a profit-focused capitalist enterprise, and so his identical grey T-shirts communicate that Facebook’s profits aren’t spent on conspicuous displays of personal wealth; rather, they are thriftily squirrelled away for shareholders.

So, why do people like him wear the same thing every day?

Choice Paralysis And Decision Fatigue

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” Barack Obama told Vanity Fair journalist Michaell Lewis in 2012. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

In Aesop’s fable ‘The Fox and the Cat’, the clever fox has many ways of evading predators, while the cat has only one – but when the hounds approach, the fox freezes in indecision and is caught. The moral: “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon”.

Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘decision fatigue’ or analysis paralyis, and it was popularised by Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice. Faced with many potential choices, our decision-making processes slow down to the point where action is never taken. We may have more freedom of choice than ever, but we’re unhappier for it.

Also gaining mainstream currency is the notion that too many choices create such cognitive friction that we make bad decisions later in the day. The idea that we each have a limited daily ‘reservoir’ of logical and irrevocable ‘decisions’ is key to the notion that we should eliminate some of the low-level ones – such as what to wear.

But when Fast Company journalist Rachel Gillett decided to wear the same clothes every day, it didn’t improve her creative thinking. “What I started to realize throughout this experiment is how much I appreciate variety over efficiency and how plans rarely go as you anticipated,” she reported. “After a few days I began to resent the black T-shirt and jeans I wore each day and daydream about the bright pink shirt or the polka dot dress I would wear next week.”

Tech Culture And The Neoliberal Bro-Cult Of Productivity

There’s something rather monkish and self-denying about tech culture, which seems to prize a strictly utilitarian approach to squeezing life for maximum efficiency. ‘Life hacks’ are theoretically about freeing you from everyday drudgery, but they really only free you to ‘be more productive’ – that is, to do more work.

Wearing identical clothes each day comes from the same neoliberal impulse that seeks to replace the frivolity of eating with a grey slurry known as Soylent. In this cult of productivity, pleasure is wasteful because it’s a goal in itself rather than something instrumental. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg thinks it’s “silly or frivolous” to choose clothing each day to delight the eye, cosset the body or lift the mood.

The idea that a tech leader should care about what he (and it’s almost always a ‘he’) achieves, not how he looks, also can’t be distinguished from a geeky defensiveness about physical appearance. Nerds have always been mocked in mainstream culture for dressing badly, whether it’s their high pants and pocket protectors, their Mountain Dew-stained T-shirts or their Adidas slides worn with socks. See this helpful geek timeline, for instance.

Artist's impression.

Artist’s impression.

Tech culture’s well-documented hostility to women also can’t be ignored here. Caring about clothes is belittled because it’s feminised – something only silly women trouble their little heads with. But as Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) acidly schools her new assistant Andie (Anne Hathaway) in The Devil Wears Prada, “You’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back … and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”

It’s Not A Uniform – It’s A Costume

Many people liken the experience of ‘wearing the same thing every day’ to wearing a school or work uniform. But that completely misunderstands what uniforms signify: membership of a group, with distinguishing features signifying status within that group.

When Interstellar director Christopher Nolan was recently profiled in The New York Times, writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus observed:

He long ago decided it was a waste of energy to choose anew what to wear each day, and the clubbable but muted uniform on which he settled splits the difference between the demands of an executive suite and a tundra. The ensemble is smart with a hint of frowzy, a dark, narrow-lapeled jacket over a blue dress shirt with a lightly fraying collar, plus durable black trousers over scuffed, sensible shoes. In colder weather, Nolan outfits himself with a fitted herringbone waistcoat, the bottom button left open. A pair of woven periwinkle cuff links and rather garish striped socks represent his only concessions to whimsy or sentimentality; they have about them the sweet, gestural, last-minute air of Father’s Day presents.”

Nolan’s dress may be routinised, but it’s peculiar to Nolan. The strictly utilitarian explanations of ‘wearing the same thing every day’ ignore that people who wear the same thing every day don’t all dress alike. It’s not a uniform – it’s a costume.

Steve Jobs is often counted as a precursor to Zuckerberg in sartorial consistency because he always wore black turtlenecks and jeans. But he reveals the difference between a uniform and a costume.

Also handy as camouflage.

Also handy as camouflage.

As Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson recounted to Gawker, Jobs was inspired on a trip to Japan where he noticed that Sony employees all wore uniforms – a cool black nylon jacket designed by Issey Miyake, which could unzip into a vest. The company’s chairman Akio Morita explained to Jobs that Japan’s uniformed culture arose after WWII, when clothes were in such short supply that employers had to provide them. Eventually, they became signature styles that enabled workers to bond to the company.

“I decided that I wanted that type of bonding for Apple,” Jobs later recalled. “I came back with some samples and told everyone it would great if we would all wear these vests. Oh man, did I get booed off the stage. Everybody hated the idea.”

But Jobs remained friends with Issey Miyake, who made him “like a hundred” of the turtlenecks that would become a personal signifier. Jobs was an intensely ambitious and arrogant man focused on building Apple’s business, but the turtlenecks created an impression of a retiring ascetic.

It’s an impression Mark Zuckerberg is no doubt keen to echo.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She founded online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast and is author of the book Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.

Comments

Comments

  1. Samanjj says:

    Einstein did it before these people for the very same reason; to avoid distraction and focus on his work. And please don’t read sexism and neoliberalism into things when it is not there – you could be projecting unless you have proof to back you up. What you described could also be seen as a focused hard work ethic and Puritan at most.

    I also would like to add that I enjoyed reading your column and will look forward to more of your thoughts.

  2. Mel Campbell says:

    The link to the article I wanted to cite re: “tech culture’s well-documented hostility to women” seems to have gone AWOL, but here it is. I actually was spoilt for choice in terms of media coverage of sexism in technology. But if you’re determined not to believe that sexist exists, it’s not my job to prove to you that it does, or to do your research for you.

    As for neoliberalism, the article I meant to cite re: Soylent also seems to have been replaced during editing with that general NYT story. I really recommend Jeff Sparrow’s article.

    What makes Soylent – along with ‘optimising’ one’s clothing – neoliberal is that it represents a restructure of the self around the demands of the corporation. In order to compete in an insecure and demanding industry, workers internalise the notion that the habits of humanity are ‘wasteful’, and instead they aspire to “simply embody a labour power to be grudgingly replenished with spoonfuls of sludge.”

  3. Samanjj says:

    I didn’t say sexism as a whole didn’t exist but that if a woman wants to wear the same clothes everyday she should feel empowered to; I personally defend peoples’ choice to express themselves this way as it does no harm be they man or woman. Einstein didn’t work for a corporation so when he did it it wasn’t Neo liberal? What about when Gandhi did it? Also if I choose to do it without my employer forcing me to then how is that neoliberalism? I think you said it best when you said it was a costume or I would think of it as part of a person’s brand. I for one feel annoyed that I have to wear a suit(whatever kind) instead of what I prefer.

  4. Samanjj says:

    On women in tech – sadly during my uni studies and now at my work men outnumber women in tech. Women outnumber men in marketing. I have not seen sexism or hostility myself in either area but I know reports show it’s there in both industries. All I can do is treat people with respect and individual and ensure we work well as a team to solve the problems at hand. Seems to work for me so far.

  5. Jacob says:

    I think your neo-liberalism argument is probably based on a sort of false-consensus bias. People view clothes in different ways. Rachel Gillett (and presumably you based on the tone of the article) enjoy picking clothes and see it as pleasureable in some way, while other people, including myself and presumably Zuckerberg, see it as a chore. For us, you wear different clothes so that you don’t look like a weirdo who wears the same clothes everyday, but you derive no personal pleasure from it. Thus when Zuckerberg gives this response, he’s basically saying “id rather spend effort doing my job which i enjoy than picking clothes which i don’t.” he’s not saying “pleasure is wasteful” because he derives no pleasure from picking clothes. It wouldn’t be “silly or frivilous” if he got something out of it, as many people do, but he doesn’t so it is.

    So yeah, I tend to agree with Samanjj that you’re probably reading too much into this, when the real conclusion to draw is probably just “some people don’t care about clothes, and when they’re rich and powerful they can get away with not pretending they do”

  6. Mel Campbell says:

    I really do think there’s something deliberate and performative about this, which is why I call it a ‘costume’. Someone might say they don’t care about clothes, but it is almost more effort to accumulate a wardrobe of identical outfits than literally not caring what you wear, in which case you wear whatever stuff is handy in the morning.

    I want to underline the difference between ‘having a limited style or range of clothes’ and ‘actually wearing the same thing every day’. I see this as being akin to those people who dramatically pare down their belongings in the name of ‘minimalism’ claiming it makes their lives ‘simpler’, when in fact it is a display of complex ideas – in this case, a show of mastery over materialism. What would be actually simpler is to just keep and use the stuff you have without thinking too much about it.

  7. I love this. #Dress2Depress