Dress for Success

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate,
but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
(Matt 23:25)

In college I liked to wear plaid, flannel shirts, blue jeans, and army surplus jackets, which were either passed down from my father or presents that I got for Christmas. Towards the end of my time at Iowa State and during my early years at Cornell (1976-78), I let my hair grow down to my shoulders and maintained a long, fuzzy beard. Just one thing bothered me—I started to feel slighted by the faculty, especially at Cornell. They did not seem to take me seriously.

In preparing for my year in Germany, I decided as much as possible to dress like a German. Back then, Germans wore a lot of leather so I bought a brown leather flight jacket. Germans trimmed their beards so I trimmed my beard. Most of the time my German assimilation plan worked until I opened my mouth—I spoke German too formal and too broken to pass for a German.

At one point, I attended a “Bowle Fete” (punch bowl party) thrown by a young man from Bavaria, whose father owned a vineyard and who showed off speaking Schwabish, a local German dialect. The party started off rather well and his father’s wine made a great punch, but after a few drinks he began to imitate my not-so-perfect hoch-Deutsch, for which no defense was possible—the ridicule was long and hard. My German was all too formal and this was a decidedly informal occasion.

Another time, I traveled with a Belgian colleague to Brügge, Belgium to attend a College of Europe conference on the European agricultural policy. Brügge is a small, historical town, like Williamsburg, Virginia, whose moat could only be transversed by crossing a bridge—Brügge is the German word for bridge—and the perfect place to hold a showcase conference for a bunch of polyglots from across the continent. Everything proceeded well, however, until participants discovered that their colleague from Göttingen, West Germany was not German, but American. My German was just too broken and my English just too good to run with an European crowd—I got the cold shoulder.

When I returned from Germany to start my doctoral program at Michigan State University, I decided to upgrade my wardrobe to fit the image of a German doctoral student. I bought a Tweed jacket and wore it to class with a shirt and tie every day.

Interestingly, people began to assume that I was smarter and richer and older than I really was. At first, this new focus for attention did not bother me a bit after my previous experience not being taken seriously. At one point, for example, I attended a field trip with a marketing class from the business school and the president of the company walked right past my professor to talk with me, assuming that I was the professor. But later, I discovered to my dismay that some of students that I considered friends were hanging out with me primarily because they thought I was wealthy; when they learned otherwise, they dropped me like a cold, wet newspaper.

It bothered me that appearance played such an important role in my social and professional life.[1] While outward appearances were easily manipulated with wardrobe selections, I increasingly yearned to develop the self-confidence to not only play the part of an upwardly mobile, young professional but to become someone comfortable in a variety of social settings. I particularly enjoyed the company of international students, many of whom were attractive, socially sophisticated, and fun to be with.

Reference

Molley, John T. 1988. New Dress for Success. New York: Warner Books.

[1] The title for this reflection, Dress for Success, is the title of a popular book (Molley 1988).

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