I never thought of myself as stylish, exactly; as a preteen in the early 90s, I judged how much I liked a pair of pants by how many pockets they had stitched into them. (Given that it was the 90s, I suspect I wasn’t the only one.) Still, while I’m generally inclined toward the dork-ish, I’m also a quick study, and I had convinced myself I at least knew a thing or two about picking out ties by the time I was through college.
But when I arrived in Allentown, PA, for my first full-time reporting job after grad school, the reporter showing me the ropes (who happened to be a woman) looked askance at my daily jacket-and-tie ensembles. My wardrobe, which I had assembled when I was covering the Maryland State House the previous year, included what I thought was a reasonably snappy lineup of dress shirts, ties, slacks and a fine-checked, brown-and-black sport coat, in addition to the dark navy suit I had been wearing since high school.
“You probably shouldn’t wear a tie,” my new reporting colleague suggested. I was the night police reporter, so I was going to spend a lot of time hanging around police stations and night court offices; if I kept wearing stuff like that, she explained, “nobody will talk to you, because they’ll think you’re a lawyer.”
I subsequently slumped into a business-casual look and never again looked real seriously at buying new formal businesswear, which was probably a mistake. I’m still wearing the sport coat, which features a button that snapped in half years ago, and the navy suit, which hasn’t fit me quite right since I was about 17.
Having lost my taste for ties, I spent the next few years proudly sporting a little triangle of my white undershirt at my open collar. I later noticed with some pride that Mark Harmon, in his role as super-agent Gibbs on the show “NCIS,” usually sported ensembles similar to mine: Sport jacket, boldly colored shirt, white triangle of undershirt. I was mortified to discover years later that, fashion-wise, he looks like a dork. As Slate’s Troy Patterson put it back in 2008:
There has been an effort to make the actor in the role, Mark Harmon, look awful, and it has succeeded. The choppy haircut, the noxiously patterned sport coats, the perpetual wedge of white undershirt under his floppy open collar [...]
Right. So, then I started wearing undershirts that wouldn’t show above my open collar — only to realize many months later that I was unwittingly rocking Rockford’s look, which was routinely mocked on his own show. (To wit: The bit starting around 4:40 in this episode.)
I’ve more or less given up on trying to change. And, keeping in mind my colleague’s advice that my clothes might affect the impression I make on my sources, I figure it just might work to my advantage. Those sources will see me with my dorky open collar and my five-year-old sport coat with the broken button, and they’ll think: “Maybe I ought to take pity on this guy and talk to him for his story, because clearly that newspaper he works for isn’t paying him much.”