Robert E. Kelly didn’t wake up on 10th March 2017 expecting that the top half of his body was about to become famous. In a clip soon shared by every aunt across the world, the associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University was upstaged by his swaggering daughter and freewheeling baby as they barged in on his Skyped-from-home interview about South Korea’s ousted president, to mortifying comic effect. Common amidst the subsequent churn of memes and thinkpieces was the question of why the academic pushed his eldest child away instead of getting up to help. At a press conference to discuss the event – as apparently holding a global press conference to talk about a viral video is now absolutely normal – he disclosed the answer: he remained seated because he didn’t want to reveal that he was wearing jeans.
The combination of denim with a jacket and tie is certainly abhorrent, but it would be stranger if Professor Kelly had been wearing a complete suit. While it makes sense to dress appropriately for a public workplace, if it’s just you and your adorably jaunty offspring then you’re surely free to wear whatever you find most agreeable. Unless you happen to be an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter from the 1940s, that probably doesn’t mean a business suit.
For those who experience working from home as a regular part of their profession, as opposed to a rare and glorious treat when snow brings the country to a halt, the issue of clothing can take on greater meaning. If you don’t have to leave the house and aren’t required to chat to any BBC presenters about South Korean geopolitics, what should you wear? Is it helpful to get fully dressed to work, or is there something to be gained from the tactile pleasure of staying in your pyjamas for as long as possible? If no-one is going to see you, do you still need to look your best? Who are you dressing up for anyway: them, or you?
It is tempting to look towards the behaviour of historical home-workers for guidance, but this only demonstrates that there is no definitive way to conduct yourself sartorially: Kingsley Amis and George Gershwin both started working each day in their dressing gowns before shifting to other attire after a shower, John Cheever usually wrote in just his underwear, Georges Simenon wouldn’t change his clothes for the entire time it took to write a novel, early in his career Thomas Wolfe would work naked while standing up and fondling himself, and a wide range of writers from Marcel Proust to Edith Sitwell refused to leave their beds at all.
From my own experience I’ve found that working in cosy, oversized, absolutely-not-for-public-consumption clothing is a mildly transgressive thrill – a bit like I’ve made a career out of staying home from school – but this works best when it’s a refreshing change rather than the norm. Unsurprisingly, striking a balance between feeling comfortable and orderly is beneficial: I respond better when my working hours are a discrete, productive stretch of time, commencing with the routine of dressing in a vaguely presentable manner before that approach is steadily abandoned as the day wears on – pyjama bottoms may or may not make an appearance for the final hour.
One of the cardinal attractions of becoming a freelancer is the opportunity to structure your working life in the form that is best for you, rather than what’s best for an employer. This doesn’t always compensate for the uncertainty, fluctuating income, lack of basic financial provisions or the perpetual need to hustle, but appreciating the freedom of self-employment means identifying the most effective and satisfying way to work. It’s all worth thinking about, from the type of jobs you take to whether you wear a baggy cardigan or not. What works is different for everyone but that’s the joy of it: you have to figure out what it is you want, and go from there.
Published in IPSE Magazine Issue 60.