Monday, September 03, 2007

Casual Friday, or What People Really Mean When They Say "Nice Shirt"

And you don't know nann nigga
that wear mo' Polo shit than me bitch...
--Trick Daddy

It is an age-old dilemma faced every morning by men and women everywhere--except in nudist colonies perhaps. Standing before your closet wondering what to wear for the day, or simply muttering to yourself how shabby all of your clothes are, and how you need a new wardrobe and wouldn’t it be awesome to just get a whole new wardrobe, new shoes, new undershirts and underwear, and then despairing quickly about your life and how you'll never be able to afford a new pair of shoes, much less an entire wardrobe, broke as you are, and how you’re gonna be late for work if you continue staring at the legless, bodiless versions of yourself hanging from wire and wood in your closet.

And so you scratch your head, trying to think of what is appropriate for the weather. Trying to think of how long it’s been since you’ve worn that shirt. Wondering if people suspect you wear the same clothes too often, and once you've found the shirt for the day, trying to tuck it in properly so that it doesn’t look asymmetrical or get all baggy at the waist. Trying to match tie to shirt to pant. Upholding the all-important shoe to belt parallelism. Trying to shake the smell out of your last pair of semi-clean dress socks.

The ordeal is daunting enough, but it’s especially difficult for me on the mornings of the last day of the work week, a day that is dangerously referred to as “Casual.”

I believe it was wise old Polonius from Hamlet who quoth, “the apparel oft doth proclaim the man.” I would only add to that by saying especially on Casual Fridays, sweet prince. One cannot hide behind the corporate uniform. The guy with the slightly tacky ties will be, as most people suspected, outed as a huge fan of Hawaiian shirts. The woman who dresses like a Mormon Mother will wear a sleeveless top exposing a skull tattoo with flames emitting from its eye sockets. And a young man who goes by my name and my particulars will, from time to time, don a rather eye-catching polo shirt. No use beating around the bush: this polo shirt, which I wear every once in a while on Casual Friday, is pink. Very pink.

Though I grew up wearing polo shirts (a fact which is uninteresting and speaks to my desire to fit in as a high school boy in Suburban Georgia, where polo shirts were more or less mandatory back then), I otherwise dislike them, partly because of its frat boy douchebag associations, and partly as withdrawal from all those Nautica Chaps IZOD days of yesteryear. But the reason I like this pink polo of mine so much—which was a gift from my much more stylish younger brother—is because it serves as a subtle commentary on the polo shirt. I don't want to overstate this or sound like someone venting guilt-stricken justifications for wearing a widely frowned upon article of clothing, but in its loud and typically feminine hue (pink), the shirt subverts a longstanding paragon of masculinity (the polo shirt). That and it kind of makes me look ripped.

The problem of course is that not everyone seems to get this subtle bit of social commentary, because every time I wear it on Casual Friday, which is not often, I get a lot of dubious compliments, the most usual of which is the simple, but also the incredibly loaded: “Nice shirt.” I never hear anything about the other shirts I wear, just the pink polo.

Nice. Shirt.

Niiiiiice shirt.

Nice shiiiiiiiiirt.


Naturally, this has led to another favored pastime of mine, which is trying to parse the meaning of the things people say to one another at the office. “Nice shirt” seems harmless and perfunctory enough, but what do people really mean when they say such things? Especially when it's about the people we see most often during the week. What do we really think about Janet’s new haircut or Bill's new goatee?

Perhaps, a lot of people will tell me “Nice shirt” and really mean it. Some people probably really like my pink polo. But on a very basic, sensory level, I think people say “Nice shirt” because they're using a cordial shorthand for pointing out something out of the ordinary. In this light, “Nice shirt” becomes more precisely:

“Hello, Mik. I am noticing your shirt. It’s not that I hate it or love it. I’m just simply noticing it today whereas on most days I don’t give two shits about what you’re wearing. I’m noticing your shirt because of it’s very bright pink color. The best way to tell you that I am noticing your shirt is to simply say ‘Nice shirt,’ which I am saying now.”

Then there’s the other contingent who will say “Nice shirt” with an ever-so-subtle hint of solidarity, as if by complimenting me on my choice in wardrobe, they are also acknowledging that wearing a pink polo shirt on Casual Friday is a way of sticking it to the man, or (God forbid) a fashion statement of some kind. What these people really mean is:

“Right on, man. I would never be able to pull that shirt off, what with the way I have dressed all these years and the way people expect me to dress. But I am digging your decision to wear this pink polo shirt. These corporate guys might not like it, but I’m not like them. Don’t blow up my spot, but I used to smoke weed back in college. I know. Pretty crazy, huh? That’s the kind of anti-establishment guy I am though. Underneath this Paul Stuart shirt beats the heart of Che Guevera. Have you seen Motorcycle Diaries? I loved that! But that’s the kind of guy I am—the kind that really admires, but would never dare wear, that pink polo shirt of yours. Also, have you been working out?”

To any and all compliments of course, I have the same stock answer, the same resigned half-smirk, the same gentle shrug of fluorescent shoulders. “It’s pink,” I say and count down the minutes until the factory bell rings and the machines cease blowing steam, and I can step out into the temperate New York day and transform instantly into just another guy wearing a shirt.

[Update: I just realized something. Do you see the various links, archived months, and labels to your right, hypertexted in light blue? Go ahead and click one of those. Now return to this page. Do you see the color that the link you clicked just turned? Well, in case you were wondering, that's the exact same color of my pink polo shirt.]

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