One Man's 30-Day Mission To Master The Work Uniform

What kind of manic obsessive wears the same clothes every working day of his life? Well, actually, the visionary, world-conquering, human race-empowering kind of manic obsessive. The kind of manic obsessive we all occasionally dream of being. Esquire's Will Hersey set out to do the same: he spent a month wearing the same combination of clothes to work. Would it turn him into a hyper-productive super-achiever? Would anyone notice? And, most importantly, what outfit should it be?

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Life is short. There's a lot to do. The human brain has officially never been busier in its 200,000-year history. So who's got time to waste carefully picking an outfit every single morning until the day they die?

Steve Jobs didn't. After a trip to Japan in the Eighties, he first became drawn to the idea of a personal uniform, later trademarking an outfit of black Issey Miyake turtleneck, New Balance trainers and a daddish pair of Levi's. Every working day. No matter what.

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Albert Einstein didn't, either. The time-poor physicist settled on a general outfit of grey suit, no socks (a clever shortcut straight to shoes) and effortlessly ungroomed hair.

The list goes on: Stanley Kubrick (chinos and blue shirts); Alfred Hitchcock (dark blue suit); Andy Warhol (501s, button-down shirt, striped tie, blue jacket). History is littered with men who at some point in their lives, typically their productive peak in and around middle age, realised they had better things to do than pontificate over which colour shirt better complimented their trousers.

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You didn't find Einstein with his head in the washing bin trying to dig out his favourite jumper, laying different jackets on the bed or standing in front of the mirror deciding if it was a shoes or trainers day. When he'd have already made it down the lab, I was late for work. This didn't happen every day. Most mornings, I'd muddle along with a core of items that I could configure into a range of outfits that went all the way from T-shirt and jeans to suit and tie.

But there were bad days. And working in the office of a men's style magazine probably didn't help. The lost minutes were accumulating. The mental strain, however small, was taking its toll. First world problems? Certainly. So, if you're reading this in a war-torn corner of the planet that still has a functioning magazine kiosk, my apologies. But I'm not the only one.

Just last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined the same-outfit-every-day party announcing: "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 to best serve this community."

It was a succinct, if slightly creepy way of saying exactly how I felt. Yes, he probably could have chosen something better than that shapeless grey T-shirt while we're on the subject. But hey, the sentiment was there.

You know those stats about how much of your lifetime you spend in bed (25 years), watching TV (nine years) sitting at a desk (five years) and in the bathroom (18 months)? I didn't want to add dithering in front of my shirt rack (four months, estimated) to my personal life list.

One morning, facing a wardrobe comprising over 200 different components, many of which I never wore, in seemingly infinite combinations, and which took up more space than my wife's clothes, I had an epiphany. An intervention with myself. I was going to join the greatest minds in human history and find a professional outfit that I could wear for the rest of my life.

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Well, I'd start with a month and see what happened.

"If people turn to look at you on the street, you are not well dressed"
Beau Brummell

How much do people actually notice what you wear? As a man, the truth is nowhere near as much as you'd like to think. Australian TV news anchor Karl Stefanovic wore the same blue suit every day for a year to make a point about how much more heavily his female co-presenter's outfits were scrutinised in comparison to his. "No one has noticed," he said, once the year was up. "No one gives a shit."

When I told a woman at work about the experiment I was embarking on, her response told the same story: "Have you started yet?" This was both disappointing and quietly heartening. If people didn't care or notice what I was wearing anyway, why had I been bothering all these years?

Before I could begin my new life of never having to decide, I had to make a decision. I needed to pick an outfit for the ages. One that I liked, felt comfortable in, and, if possible, suited me. One that would nod to style and good taste, but was resistant to passing fads, that was built to last, and could work in almost any situation. I know what you're thinking. Men already have a uniform: it's called the suit, and half the country still has to wear one every day. Except for me, in my job, it didn't feel right. And whatever you think of this article so far, it wouldn't have made much of an experiment.

A more tempting option was to do the opposite, to go bold. To become the quirky guy who always wears a bow-tie, a seersucker jacket or brick red trousers. To try to establish myself as a brand and use my clothes as its subliminal corporate logo. Something not lost on Jobs. "Hey, it's the dungarees guy" people in the industry might whisper to each other, as I strolled impressively into meetings, or on to stages to deliver keynote addresses. But sadly, this was not about being memorable and creating a persona but adopting an outfit to make my life easier and work in any situation. 

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All black was a logical, and popular, suggestion. It offered timelessness, proven associations with respect and authority, and an unrivalled capacity for masking stains. Useful given I had a month of this and a phobia of washing machines.

On the downside, however, one stray move and it could quickly veer into mature goth territory, or possibly worse, po-faced James Bond wannabe. And would doubtless prove sweaty in direct sunlight.

A regulation fitted T-shirt in white or navy made the shortlist, too. It was youthful, free-spirited and capable of being dressed up with a jacket, but could it ever be smart-smart when the situation required? Plus, bare arms in England made it immediately unworkable.

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After consulting Esquire's fashion team, a consensus began to form. Navy was to be the key colour. I am a man after all. A single-breasted two-button blazer that could get me through the smartest event. A crisp, white shirt would make a classic contrast; a button-down oxford by Ralph Lauren had the flexibility to be smart and casual. Chinos were pipped in favour of dark indigo jeans by J Crew. A lightweight pair for summer was chosen over a heavy selvedge. For shoes, the derby balanced its sporting origins with a modern feel; in dark brown suede to add a little texture.

It didn't end there. My uniform extended right down to a job-lot of blue Sunspel pants and navy Pantherella socks.

I had a uniform. An identity. A sense of purpose. And I wouldn't even have to choose which pants to wear each morning. I felt liberated. And also a little bit trapped.

"A man should look as if he had bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, and then forgotten all about them"
Hardy Amies

Inevitably, the first two days were spent agitating over whether I'd made the right choices. Perhaps I should have gone with grey trousers instead of jeans or a navy crew-neck instead of the white shirt. But commitment here was key. After all, that was the whole point.

By day three, I reached acceptance. Where there used to be a vague nagging thought about which meetings I had tomorrow and what I might need to wear, there was now a quiet sense of certainty, even serenity. On the commute to work, I felt self important, like a man who doesn't have time to mess around choosing clothes in the morning would: "Out of my way, I'm a man who wears the same clothes every day of his life!"

From a purely style perspective it began to make sense, too. You can always wear what suits you want. You can justify spending the money on quality clothes that you know fit you well. And best of all, you could have a rack of identical white shirts reminiscent of that scene in American Gigolo. Or was it American Psycho? Either way, I felt a narcissistic spasm of excitement every time I opened my wardrobe door.

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Feedback was initially good. During the first week several people used that catch-all work compliment, "You look smart today". Two asked me if I had a job interview. This was a promising start.

On a work trip to Paris, the outfit's global capabilities came into their own, blending seamlessly with the European model of classic smart casual. Hell, I may as well have been called Jean-Claude.

I thought I'd miss the freedom of deciding more than I actually did. That having a uniform might somehow repress my creative expression. But given how many creative types, especially fashion designers, had an outfit, perhaps the opposite was true.

Tom Ford likes a dark grey, single-breasted, peaked-lapel suit, white shirt, dark tie and black cap-toed shoes. "I wear a variation of this look every day that I am in a city." Karl Lagerfeld is partial to his black suit and trademark gold pendant. Michael Kors wears black tops with either black or white jeans, describing the latter as an easy way for men to look sexy. But hazardous if you like ketchup as much as I do.

You didn't have to be a famous designer to do this, either. Swedish art director Matilda Kahl adopted a work outfit precisely because she had a creative job. "I have so many creative challenges at work to keep my mind stimulated that I don't feel an urge to express myself creatively through what I wear. I finally had enough." That was three years ago and she was still going strong. Perhaps we were on to something.

"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"
Barack Obama

If I was saving all this time and mental effort just with editing my workwear outfit, why not extend it into all the other details of my morning routine?

The subject of morning routines had become something of a hot topic among life hackers such as Tim Ferris and other self-help aficionados, who liked to analyse how the most high-powered, high-functioning and generally impressive humans among us behaved in the critical hours after waking.

What these "super-achievers" actually did was largely unsurprising: getting up early, scheduling time for exercise and meditation (a favourite of CEOs, though it would be interesting to see how many stick to it once the alarm goes off), reviewing goals, possibly rereading their personal mantra etc.

However, the unifying factor among the most successful and productive is that a rigid routine almost always existed, one that limits the number of decisions they have to make each morning.

According to 19th-century psychologist William James, the unofficial godfather of the morning routine movement, what we do as part of our daily itinerary is critical to our functionality.

"The more details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work," James said.

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In other words, systems work because they make things automatic. And it wasn't just time at stake here, but brain power.

While most of us, to paraphrase Henry Thoreau, "fritter away our lives on details", the big hitters were making the small stuff routine, so their brains could focus on the stuff that actually matters. And studies backed this up, citing intriguingly named concepts like decision fatigue, cognitive bandwidth and ego depletion as evidence.

"The concept of ego depletion is highly relevant here," says Mason Currey, who studied the morning routines of great artists for his book Daily Rituals.

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"Many studies have shown that self-discipline is a limited resource – and that exercising willpower or self-control in one area reduces your ability to do so in another area."

While I loved the idea of an Obama-like stripping away of life's trivialities, was my own life really important enough to benefit from this kind of focus?

Could be. As psychologist Daniel Levitin has written, such is the burden on the modern brain, that "the more insignificant decisions we are faced with, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important."

Yes, Obama has a few more pressing matters on his plate, but importance is relative. We are all the presidents of our own domain after all.

I began getting up an hour earlier and at the same time, started with a regular stretching routine to combat a lower back problem, sparked my metabolism with a hot water and lemon, streamlined a breakfast-making routine into less than four minutes and only watched one episode of Frasier instead of two.

"If you're not sure whether it looks good on you, it doesn't"
Scott Omelianuk

As the weather warmed up, cracks started to appear in my outfit. Not literally, this was manufactured of quality materials, but psychologically.

In a professional setting, it hadn't put a foot wrong. The Gieves & Hawkes hopsack jacket alone was a suit of armour that had carried me through various skirmishes. With the jacket off, however, I was just a guy in jeans with a white shirt tucked into his trousers. The beautiful Mr Hare derbies managed to be both special and understated but I longed for a day in trainers.

At a rooftop cinema, rubbing shoulders with the kids of trendy Peckham, I felt like a stuffed shirt. In my blue blazer against a sea of tattooed 25-year-olds, I was hitting a look somewhere between golf club captain and a dad who'd come to pick up his daughter. 

Sustaining the outfit was also more than I'd bargained for. It had soon become clear you need to rotate at least 10 identical white shirts to know one will always be ready to wear.

At weekends, I could cut loose on the casualwear and I needed the release. I pulled out a print T-shirt and tracksuit top I hadn't worn for years. A little tighter, sure, but it was comforting.

On the first hot day of summer, I had to resist a strong urge to ditch the jeans for a pair of chinos. Had I been doing it too long or had I just not been doing it enough?

"Know first who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly"
Epictetus

Day 30. You notice, and even learn, things when you dress exactly the same every day for a month. You notice that people don't notice. But that they would if you didn't bother. So, not being noticed is a kind of success.

Trust me. You understand the power of multiples. If you like and suit something, buy more than one; it's guaranteed to be in the wash or a hidden drawer whenever you really want to wear it. It'll last longer, too.

Don't buy things you like on other people but aren't likely to wear yourself. Know thyself, to quote the Ancient Greeks, and know what suits thyself, too. Think in outfits. You'll save yourself a lot of money on clothes you don't need and won't ever take the label off. Socks are not a good platform for quirky self-expression. But quality underpants are underrated. Never underestimate the power of a really good jacket. It can carry you along on its own. Don't be cheap about this.

Ultimately, it comes down to how clothes make you feel. Matching your outfit to your mood and what you'll be doing is the best bit of getting dressed. What you wear is communication; our clothes send messages to others and by wearing the same outfit every day, I found that I was limiting that dialogue.

A huge wardrobe clear-out on the last weekend seemed a fitting way to mark the end of a month that had been both frustrating, enlightening and instructive. In that time my once haphazard morning routine had morphed into a faff-less and decision-free sequence that had me at my desk earlier and with a better outlook on the day.

I had my outfit to thank, no doubt. But the relationship had been too intense, and it was now time to part amicably and forge a new way. A simple core of quality pieces that can be mixed and matched for the day ahead. Not revolutionary, more like the original theory behind what makes a good wardrobe. And with it might come an appreciation for the simple pleasure of picking your clothes each day, having lived through the no-nonsense alternative.

Yes, time was finite and it's good to be efficient, but we've all got to get dressed in the morning.

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