I remember a time long ago—but then again, everything seems like it was “long ago” to me—when I was flying out to see an operator in a financial district. Someone working with the account asked me what I normally wear… which is some sort of button down and black or grey pants in pretty much any situation. Well, I will put on a sport jacket if I’m teaching in some contexts, but still, the black/grey pants and some sort of button down are pretty much a “uniform” for me. The person working on the account asked me if I could please switch to ragged shorts, a t-shirt, and grow a pony tail because … the folks at the operator would never believe I was an engineer if I dressed to “formal.”

Now I’ve never thought of what I wear as “formal…” it’s just … what I wear. Context, however, is king.

In other situation, I saw a sales engineer go to a store and buy an entirely new outfit because he came to the company’s building wearing a suit and tie … The company in question deals in outdoor gear, and the location was in a small midwestern town, so a suit, well, let’s just say it didn’t “fit.” Again, context is king.

We have—particularly in tech—become accustomed to casual dress codes. Coders, network engineers, and many others just wear whatever whenever. We are expected, in fact, to dress beyond casual—even to be ratty, as in the stories above. Is this really a good thing, though?

As a famous fashion historian has said: “Americans began the 20th century in bustles and bowler hats and ended it in velour sweatsuits and flannel shirts.” I’ve never worn bustles, bowler hats, or velour sweatsuits (do they even make such a thing???), but the flannel shirts I totally relate to. Although… I do only buy flannels that don’t have large-scale checks of any kind. It’s hard to find plain or subtle patterns, but I actively search them out.

The point of this  aside about clothes is this—one of the problems with casual clothing is it doesn’t create the kinds of limits, or lines, in your life that more formal clothing creates. If you wear the same clothes all the time, then you have the same mindset all the time. You’re always working, or you’re always playing—whatever it is.

According to Tara Lookabaugh, this is a major cause of stress in our lives. In the “old days,” salesmen wore a three-piece suit at work, then came home to a smoking jacket or perhaps jeans, or something similar. This was not only a matter of preventing dangerous chemicals from entering the home (think of a factory worker), it also helped create a mental barrier between work and home life.

A barrier that no longer exists.

Does removing this barrier increase stress? I think it does. Can it be replaced with some other kind of barrier? This is one reason I have an office in my house—or at least a clearly set-apart apace dedicated to working on the computer. It’s not that I won’t pick my laptop up and go outside on a beautiful day, or even down to the library at the Seminary just for a change of scenery. When I’m home, however, when I cross the “work-space threshold,” I somehow think about work things.

So I’ve attempted to replace the barrier between work and the rest of my world created by clothing with a physical “work-space barrier.” Does this work all the time? Not really, but it’s at least a start in the right direction. Of course, I also only have one computer, which is probably another place where I could create a barrier between work and “other things.”

But creating such a barrier is important for mental health, regardless of how you do it.

What do you think? Do you think “casual dress” has created more stress than it has resolved? Is Tara’s argument right? What other methods are there out there to create this sort of barrier?