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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

I wore white t-shirts for a month. Here's what I learned.

I only wore white T-shirts and jeans for a month. No, I did not reek, but I discovered a lot about appearances. 

With every ingenious project, there is the mustard seed idea. I encountered a lot of freshmen boys last year who, without warning, showed up to class with a shaved head halfway through the school year. These contingencies had superficially different causes — a failed class, a “broken” heart, a misleading Snapchat filter. A friend Andrew who had impressive long, surfer hair told me that he just wanted to see how girls would treat him without his dashing, golden locks. I did not stick around or follow up with him to hear his results, but he made me think about perceptions and how we present ourselves to others.  

Until the spring of 2023, I always dressed in a way that I thought would represent my personality and interests, whether I felt like wearing a sick Radiohead shirt or a sophisticated sweater, I made choices when I got out of bed — consciously or subconsciously — that would affect how I appeared to others every day. 

We all participate in this phenomenon — down to the literal faces we put on.

In my junior year of high school, I went on a month-long backpacking trip with eight classmates. For three of those days, we wandered off to individual sites with rationed food where we camped in solitude. Interestingly, when we came back, there was a brief period where we all looked a little strange. Our facial muscles had stopped performing for a few days, so when we came together, everyone had uncanny expressions. 

This was my experimental question: If I inhibit my use of fashion as a means of self-expression, how will my social interactions change? 

The hypothesis: The blandness of my appearance will filter out superficial interactions and shallow people. My impressions will be absolutely based on what I say. 

I went to Target. I spent 30 dollars on white t-shirts and the experiment began. 

During class days, nothing much happened. Not much happened between classes anyway. Before, I would get the occasional comment from a rare Smashing Pumpkins fan about my band shirt or some words of appreciation for my cleverly repurposed fencing shirt. 

At parties, however, I was drowning in compliments about my white t-shirts. Just kidding. The point was to go unnoticed. It’s not like I was receiving a ton of attention about my clothing before, but I knew was confident that the impression I was leaving on people was not altered by my appearance.

Imagine someone walks up to you and they are just wearing a white t-shirt and jeans. What can you assume about their life or personality without hearing or speaking to them?  

Probably nothing! 

Consider the opposite side of the spectrum. A person comes up to you with “emo” makeup, black dyed hair, all black clothing, save a goat head enclosed in an upside-down Star of David on their shirt and you begin to assume things about their life and personality. 

It does not have to be extreme either. It could be a college student wearing Sperry’s, khaki shorts and a Tommy Bahama polo. Maybe it’s someone wearing Birkenstocks, a long floral skirt, a tie die crop top and a funny little tote. 

Still, while a greaser look is bland, it does not go unnoticed when you wear it for two consecutive weeks. Friends started to notice, and I did get a few odd looks of realization, which probably induced some strange déjà vu effects in class. For the non-regulars, the people I met when I went out or met with day to day, I was more intentional with my words. I knew that they would be the main source of judgment from whoever I was speaking with. 

Sadly, the results of my experiment were not grand. There were no crazy stories from that month, at least not related to my fashion statement. I did come to one major realization by the end of the month: Breaking away from social norms can promote self-reflection. 

While Andrew’s experiment was more specific to his “girl-hunt” of sorts, there likely came a time when he thought about the other aspects of his appearance — physical and social. When I stopped thinking about how my superficial self affected my interactions, I thought deeply about how my interests, experiences, humor, speech patterns and other elements of my personality played into my intangible appearance.

Breaking a social norm does not need to be about a piece of clothing. It may be time to let go of the hair or deactivate your Instagram. We appear to people in many ways, and in some that we are not even aware of. It can be overwhelming and impossible to keep up with. This is not about micromanaging your appearance. (Please do not do that.) The white t-shirt is about taking a step back and letting yourself shine in an honest way.

Matt Baird, a proud native of Danville, California, is a sophomore majoring in English and Finance. He enjoys walking, listening to music and humming.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.