An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal described an emergent new fashion trend among young male professionals: A zip-up fleece vest “worn over a button-up shirt and paired with chinos and brown dress shoes of any flavor.” Known as the Midtown Uniform, the look has become so pervasive that a well-subscribed Instagram account (@midtownuniform) has catalogued hundreds of sightings in the wild:
The anonymous account adds pithy captions to crowdsourced photos, riffing on the omnipresence of this particular outfit. “Money isn’t really ours unless you’re fully vested,” read a caption on a recent post showing two men in matching pink shirts and blue vests. Despite the implicit ridicule, the comment sections on these photos are littered with friends tagging each other and saying things like, “Bro, this is so you.”
While I live in D.C., a town where the suit and tie is institutionally entrenched, this is certainly a trend I’ve picked up on. Yet as tempting as it is to ridicule, please, don’t make fun of uninspired grey fleece guy.
Don't make fun of uninspired grey fleece guy. Clothing is a source of anxiety for a lot of people and it's made worse by the notion that everything we wear must be an authentic form of self-expression. https://t.co/5CrM16Odvr
— Samuel Hammond ?? (@hamandcheese) July 24, 2018
It’s about more than reducing social anxiety, or relieving one’s cognitive bandwidth to do more important things. Implicitly, the mockery of uninspired grey fleece vest guy is also a mockery of conformism (i.e. being “basic“), which suggests there’s a classist dimension to the ridicule, as well.
As Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter pointed out some years ago in their book Nation of Rebels, the pursuit of conspicuous self-expression, particularly through dress and other forms of consumerism, is a self-defeating arms-race for social distinction. What’s cool and distinctive today eventually gets mainstreamed through sheer popularity, surrendering it of its coolness and restarting the cycle. The anxiety that accompanies fashion is the self-consciousness of being behind in that competition. The solution is a fashion armistice, in which norms enforce a level of productive conformity around a particular Schelling point.
Fashion is a fun example for thinking about the excesses of self-expression, but it can have real implications for upward social mobility. Uniforms, whether in the form of the formal business suit, or the slightly more casual Midtown look, take attention away from meaningless status markers and put the focus on individual competence, helping talented young outsiders move up in an organization.
Of course, people working in Manhattan’s financial sector aren’t exactly lower class. But perhaps their adoption of slightly more conformist norms is part of the reason why. As Tyler Cowen argued last year on a similar theme,
The young and ambitious really can set themselves apart from the slackers, even if doing so looks conformist and stifling when multiplied and observed on a larger scale. Societies of upward mobility, when based on large and growing business enterprises, look and feel somewhat oppressive. Much as many of us might not want to admit it, the casual and the egalitarian are closer to enemies than to allies.