Friday, June 15, 2007

khakis and button-down

Today at our hospital's ACLS training for incoming interns, the Harvard boys were clustering together a little more than we should have been. (Knowing myself and the others, the clustering was more social anxiety than it was snobbery, but of course that's a fine line.) More remarkably, of seven Harvard Medical chaps who were there, all seven were in some variation of khakis and a button-down, no tie. I think five had blue shirts on, and two had white shirts. (Or was it four and three?) One of our group of Harvard boys was dressed slightly more casually yesterday, but he fell into line today.

No one else among the incoming interns from other schools was dressed exactly this way. Most were a bit more casual. It was a training, and therefore there was no clear dress code. A few were as formal as we were but in different ways: with different kinds of colors, fabrics, and so on.

I didn't dress this way before. I lived in San Francisco and wore jeans to work; when I bleached my hair my workplace credibility as a community organizer went up, not down. My lab boss in Bethesda wore all black clothes (except she wore bright yellow clogs) because she didn't want to be bothered with the problems of matching colors; no dress code there either.

Harvard changed me. Harvard somehow made me think that I should dress this way. And I think we tuned ourselves to each other: we looked more alike the second day of training than we did the first. But clearly, long before this training, without anyone explaining it or demanding it of us, we all became the guys who wear the khakis and the open-collar blue shirts.

"It's what I'd wear if I was coming over here to meet with my research advisor," said A, one of my co-terns. I said, "Of course; me too." On some level, we both felt--well, what else would you wear? In fact, I had semi-consciously run through the differential on both mornings before the training days, looking in my drawers and my closet. I thought about a dark plain polo shirt but it seemed some combination of too casual and too golf-y. Jeans were out of the question. Definitely not a t-shirt. Not even an untucked short-sleeved button-down. I don't own any brightly-colored button-down shirts; if I did I wouldn't have chosen them. Yet other men there made all of these fashion choices, and others like them.

When I told her about all this, Ms. Hemodynamics said, "Well, sure. That's part of why they were recruiting you guys."

"But I find this distressing," I said. "That somehow the institution has taken my aesthetics and eccentricities and ironed them out of me."

She understood this; but she thought my clothes were still the right choice. And of course, my program had been recruiting her too.


Ms. H said...

Another part of the decision of what you wear to a training going on during the work day in a hospital is this: what do you wear when patients are around? So while I hardly think the uniform of khakis and a button-down are required, I do think one should wear something that shows some degree of respect for any patients you might encounter.

MAK said...

Hubby and I (both lawyers) have this discussion as well. If you wear the full suit and tie regalia, are you alienating or intimidating your clients, or are you showing them respect? If you go with the khakis and the light blue oxford (my personal favorite on him), are you too casual? When he was in his 20s, he decided to go for the suit, to appear more experience and serious. Now that he actualy IS experienced (and has earlu gray hair), he likes to put his clients at ease, and dresses more casually. As a patient, i like my doctors in ties, becasue its the role he's playing. I don't like to be drawn to my physician's fashion choices, becasue that reminds me he's just a guy who had to pick out a shirt this morning like me.

My colleges who are ER physicians come to the off site meetings in jeans, cut offs, hawaian shirts, scubs, or suits, and I love it. it really does depend on the context.

This is one of the times I wish I were a man. Choices for women in this area are so different, it gets even harder to make the right choice.

Bet you never thought someone would have that much to say about this topic, eh?

Joe Wright said...

I definitely think people should have LOTS to say about this topic--these are tough signifiers to work out, and we all work them out silently because part of what we're trying to signify is that we're doing it naturally as part of who we are rather than what we're trying to be.

Emergency docs are a whole fashion world unto themselves.

I realized that some of the guys weren't wearing khakis, but some kind of slacks/trousers of a similar cut but slightly different fabric. I think it's partly about respect for the patients--but there were other people there who were dressed at the same level of formality but in different ways. So, it's also about a New England/academic uniform (as we discussed, Ms H, after you posted this and then pointed out to me in person that I got my taste for button-down blue shirts a long time ago, from my stepdad).

Chris said...

My cardiologist (Harvard trained but well established and, of course, working in Idaho) wears the hell out of a pair of jeans. Before I met him my aunt, an administrator for a competing cardiology group, warned me about his demeanor. "All cardiologists are egomaniacs," she warned. She didn't say, "hold on to your seat, honey. He's one of the best looking men you'll ever see." If that didn't make my EKG irregular then nothing should.

I, on the other hand, noticed very early that khakis and oxford cloth can mask all sorts of insanity. Nobody ever suspects that any kind of mental illness lurks behind the official uniform of East Hampton. It's a strategy I've used so much that one former roommate started calling me 'Mr. Tan.' I reacted pretty strongly to the moniker and purchased my very first article of black clothing the very next day, quickly learning that black and tan look great together.

It's not really the khaki and oxford combination that bothers me, it does lend credibility. What bothers me is that you seem to have chosen LL Bean as the preferred vendor? For crying out loud, you're Harvard boys. Don't you shop at Brooks Brothers? And go for the broad cloth, not the oxford. That is where Mr. Tan perceives the difference between the student and the professional.

Joe Wright said...

In truth I do not own any LL Bean shirts. But Land's End, yes, which is sort of the same thing.

For me, Brooks Brothers is lovely but still too expensive for everything except my interview suit. (Which is indeed Brooks Brothers.)

Also keep in mind that the primary care end of the HMS spectrum needs to buy its blue shirts somewhere different than where the specialist/surgery end of the spectrum buys its blue shirts, or else where will our special moral credibility be?

I will have much more to say about all of this when I get some paychecks and can start buying myself some new shirts.