Susan Sorokanich, a freelance interior decorator in her early sixties, has worn the same outfit every day for two decades. Every morning, she opens her closet and takes out a crisp black boatneck shirt with three-quarter sleeves, then pairs it with slim-fitting jeans. “When I first discovered this top at Talbot’s, it was a revelation,” she says. “It always made me feel polished and put together, but it also worked in every context because I could dress it up or down. The week after I bought it, I went back and got a couple more.”
It’s not that she doesn’t care about style: Her work requires her to have good taste and an eye for beautiful objects. But when she entered her forties, she simply got tired of spending so much time thinking about what to wear. These days, getting ready in the morning is an automatic process. Sure, she has a couple of variations on the theme. If she’s gardening, she may swap out jeans for shorts, and if she’s with a new client, she’ll wear slightly more formal black trousers. But for the most part, her mornings are streamlined and stress-free. “I don’t waste any time shopping for clothes or deciding what to wear every day,” Susan explains. “It’s been so incredibly liberating.”
She has done something that many women dream about: She’s effectively created a daily uniform for herself and stuck to it. While it is common for men to wear variations of the same outfit every single day–perhaps a suit, or a jeans-and-hoodie combo–it’s harder for women to achieve the same kind of simplicity with their wardrobe, for a variety of reasons. But this longstanding convention is beginning to change. Over the last few years, fashion websites and brands have promoted the idea of a “capsule wardrobe,” which involves reducing your closet to just a few pieces that you mix and match for variety. Some women have been inspired by Marie Kondo’s advice to simplify their lives by tossing out clothes that no longer spark joy. Still, few women have gone so far as to create a single uniform and stick to it for weeks on end.
So what happens when women decide to buck convention and wear the same exact thing every day? We decided to put this idea to the test by asking two of our colleagues to pick a uniform and wear it for at least two weeks. But to understand the results of this experiment, it helps to understand some of the reasons women find it hard to adopt a work uniform in the first place.
The Double Standard
When Susan first began this experiment with her black shirt 20 years ago, she saw firsthand the different social expectations around how men and women should dress. Her husband, a physician, wears more or less the same look every day, but nobody has ever commented about the lack of diversity in his clothing choices. But when Susan’s friends noticed she kept showing up in that one black top, they would ask her point blank what was going on with her. “I have friends who are always wearing the latest designers, and they’ve commented about how boring my look is,” she says. “I think you need to have a lot of self-confidence in your choices, and just try not to care.”
This double standard plays out across society. When a man wears the same outfit every day, people assume he is too absorbed with important business to worry about clothes. Meanwhile, when a woman does the same, she might be deemed unstylish or unfeminine. People begin to wonder if she has let herself go.
Consider two powerful politicians: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama only wore gray or blue suits while he was president, and nobody seemed to think anything of it. In a Vanity Fair interview with Michael Lewis, Obama explained, “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.”
Meanwhile, Clinton, who has spent much of her life in public office, has never been able to establish a uniform of her own. She has tried dresses and pantsuits, patterns and solids, and each choice has been scrutinized by the media, often unkindly. When she went through a phase of wearing staid dark outfits–the closest parallel to the outfits her male counterpart–newspapers like the Mirror and the New York Times referred to these looks as “boring.”
The Tyranny of Fashion
The fashion industry also plays into these social dynamics and sometimes reinforce them. From the dawn of the modern fashion industry, brands and designers have largely targeted women. The first fashion shows in Paris couture salons and New York department stores in the late 1800s were entirely geared toward women. This eventually gave way to modern biannual fashion week starting in the 1970s, where designers would set the fashion trends of the following seasons. While some designers did create menswear, men’s fashion took a backseat. In fact, it wasn’t until 2012 that men got a fashion week of their own. Today, even though brands are making more of an effort to appeal to men, women are still the biggest consumers of clothing, with the sales of womenswear valued at $642.8 billion in 2017 versus menswear, which was valued at $419.4 billion.
This is true even in corporate settings, where women feel pressure to wear different outfits every day. As more women enter the workplace than ever, startups have been developing solutions to reduce the amount of time and money they spend shopping for work clothes. The personal styling subscription Stitch Fix, for instance, specifically targets working women, helping them identify their “work style” and then sending boxes of clothes on a regular schedule to save them the trouble of shopping. MM.Lafleur has a similar concept with its Bento Box service.
Likewise, a range of clothing rental services like Le Tote and Gwynnie Bee have popped up to allow women to rent–rather than buy–their clothes, with dedicated sections devoted to office wear. In 2016, Rent the Runway, which first began as a rental service for gowns and fancy dresses, began offering an unlimited service, which now has an estimated 50,000 active users and is now the fastest-growing part of the business. Founder Jen Hyman believes much of this demand is coming from working women. “There’s a double standard in the office,” she told me earlier this year. “Women feel social pressure to wear different outfits to work every day, and this costs them time and money. Renting their work clothes solves a big problem in their lives.”
Of course, a far more direct way to avoid the cost and hassle of shopping for new work clothes is to just wear the same thing every day. Women seem to be intrigued by this idea. Some brands now sell a selection of a few clothes that can be easily mixed and matched. Aday has a series of “uniforms” you can pick depending on your lifestyle, Misha Nonoo has the “Easy 8,” which can be combined into 22 different outfits, and Eileen Fisher has “The System,” which involves eight pieces you can wear for many different occasions.
Experiments in Uniform Life
But what would happen if a woman pared her uniform down even further and limited herself to one single outfit? Would it actually streamline their mornings? Would people notice and think they were less professional? Would it get painfully boring? We decided to see for ourselves by asking two colleagues in our New York office to wear the same outfit for at least two weeks.
We invited our editor in chief, Stephanie Mehta, and associate editor Lara Sorokanich (who happens to be Susan’s daughter) to participate in the experiment. Each bravely agreed, with Stephanie doing it for two weeks and Lara doing it for six. The rules of the experiment were as follows: Each woman had to pick a uniform that they would wear to work every single day. (We should add a caveat that the Fast Company offices are fairly casual, although editors often have meetings with top executives, social events, or on-camera appearances that would warrant slightly more formal outfits.) We asked them to observe how they felt as they got ready in the morning and went about their day. We also asked them not to tell their colleagues about this experiment, and note how people organically reacted to them wearing the same thing every day.
Both Stephanie and Lara put a lot of thought into finding an outfit that would fit in many contexts, from family time to dinner parties. Neutral solid colors, for example, don’t stand out in other people’s minds–meaning that coworkers and friends may be less likely to register that a person is wearing the same thing.
Like Susan, Stephanie and Lara picked largely black outfits. Lara chose a black T-shirt (one sleeveless and another long-sleeved, since she did the experiment during changing seasons) along with dark gray Levi’s jeans. Stephanie paired a black turtleneck with a long black skirt.
“I picked something that would work both for school drop-off and also for a CNBC interview,” says Stephanie, who frequently does both. “In the end, this outfit fit seamlessly in each of these situations.”
The women also thought about how comfortable they would be in each outfit, since they knew they would be wearing it for an extended period of time. In fact, Lara says that this was actually one of the most important parts of the experiment. She learned from her mother that a uniform only works if you really enjoy wearing it because it makes you feel confident and allows you to put your best foot forward. “I thought about the kind of outfit I would want to wear into a high-profile interview,” she says.
In both cases, accessories started feeling more important. When Stephanie had a dinner to attend, she would wear more eye-catching earrings. Lara put more thought into the kind of handbag she would carry for the day. This was also true of her mother, who has a large array of artisanal necklaces and scarves to add variety to her outfits.
“None of my coworkers even noticed”
Lara felt that the uniform made her life easier. She completely stopped thinking about coordinating outfits for the office. She no longer felt the pressure to have something new and different to wear every day, or to go shopping for whatever color or look was currently in vogue. All of this saved time, but perhaps more importantly, it saved emotional and mental energy.
Stephanie, on the other hand, felt a little constrained by the uniform. It didn’t change her routine much because she already had a streamlined system in place where she picked an outfit the night before, allowing her to get ready in under 20 minutes. But the lack of variety felt dull to her. “For me, clothes are a form of self-expression,” she says. “I started feeling bored by what I was wearing. I think I started compensating by expressing myself through makeup, and wearing brighter shades of lipstick than I normally would.”
The most surprising thing about this experiment was other people’s reactions to the uniform–or rather, their lack of reaction. Stephanie believes her outfit was so inconspicuous–perhaps even bland–that people did not seem to remember what she wore from one day to the next. In Lara’s case, it took five weeks for anybody to comment on her outfit choices, and even then, a colleague simply observed that she had been ‘wearing a lot of black lately.’ “None of my coworkers even noticed,” Lara says. “It was really instructive. We assume that other people are paying attention to what we are wearing when they are all really more focused on their own lives.”
It turns out that–for better or worse–many women can get by without anybody even registering what she is wearing, particularly if she has carefully picked an outfit that is designed to be unobtrusive.
After wearing the same outfit for weeks, our testers discovered that they should really focus on dressing for themselves, rather than in response to any sort of social expectation. Many workplaces–like Fast Company’s–no longer have a dress code of any kind, which frees women to wear outfits that just please themselves. For some women, that might be a uniform, and for others, that might involve more variety.
These days, Lara still falls back on her uniform, although she doesn’t stick to it as slavishly as she did while she was doing this experiment. When she has a hurried, stressful morning, or if she doesn’t know what to wear for a big meeting, she instantly turns to her well-worn black shirt and gray jeans. Stephanie, on the other hand, was eager to break free of her uniform. She’s far happier wearing colors and patterns that change with her mood or with the weather. To each her own.