In ninth grade, I made a conscious effort to look my best for my first high school Model United Nations competition. I knew my clothes would shape how other students viewed me. And if I wanted to win, other students would have to respect me. I tragically chose to wear a black suit, but my mind was in the right place.
The primary purpose of clothing, beyond the basic decency of covering up, is to present ourselves to the world. Writing for Parisian Gentlemen, Sonya Glyn Nicholson says:
And it’s true–our clothing doesn’t utter a word, yet at a glance of someone’s attire, an imprint is processed on the brain and we perceive many messages at once (not in any specific order, but simultaneously). Perceptions of success, taste, occupation, creativity, perseverance, concern, and respect, for example, instantaneously flood the mind, just by observing how a person is dressed.
My own trajectory started with formal dress for scholastic competition. This interest in suiting led me to discover Styleforum, where I found affordable brands like T.M. Lewin and C.T. Shirts. When I got into Yale as a high school senior, one of my classmates made a peculiar comment to me. He said that as a Yale student I should dress better. Apparently my graphic tees and jeans, along with the occasional flannel or H&M button-down, wouldn’t be suitable for the (somewhat elitist) Ivy League. So on his suggestions, I bought some chinos and oxford cloth button downs, primarily at Lands End and J. Crew. Those items became my early college uniform.
Towards the end of my freshman year at college, I attended the Ivy Muslims conference that is hosted at Yale. The keynote speaker was a teacher named Usama Canon. I didn’t know anything about him. But when he first walked into the space, I became entranced from afar. He just had this swagger. I’m not sure if it was the tweed, the waistcoat, or the patterned scarf. Before I knew it—he was literally up in my space. So I told him I had never met a teacher with so much style.
Usama Canon told me the story of a scholar known as Imam Malik (d. 795 CE). Malik learned and taught in the city of Medina, which is located in Arabia. He considered his function of teaching as sacred. He had a routine that he went through everyday. First, he would bathe. Then he would put on fresh clothing. After dressing, he would apply oil and burn oud: both actions produced pleasing scents. And only then would he sit to teach sacred knowledge.
Imam Malik paid a great deal of attention to presentation because he considered it to be a display of respect. Usama Canon dressed to impress for his talk at Yale because he wanted attendees to take his message seriously.
The first reason to dress well is to give a positive representation of ourselves in public. I have never worn a t-shirt or sweatpants to class at Yale, because I want to convey to my teachers that I respect them. I want to present myself well; I want to represent the communities that I am a part of well. And of course clothes also allow me to show my personality, mood, and style—different outfits are appropriate for different settings. Dressing well is about perception, context, and taste.