Every minute of every day, they are watching you. Every time you put yourself out in public, or spend time in private with people not invited to your wedding or funeral, they are judging you. Every second you try and spend some quality time with social anxiety, they're right there with you. Otherwise, why would you bother?
That's the police state version of fashion. Women have had to deal with it since Jesus walked the Earth, but for dudes, it's been a choice, a way of opting into that highly undesirable version of the world where everyone gives a fuck about you all the time. Because really, who doesn't dress for others? If I told you that there's a good chance no one noticed your socks, or gave more than two seconds thought to your denim, it would defeat the purpose of worrying about your appearance. If I told you that no one is really looking at you all that hard, would you just give up?
I live in a magical city where lots of people seem to like clothes a lot. I don't know, I never really talk about clothing much. The lone exception is this one dude I work with (anonymity preserved), who has absolutely mastered the art of dressing for others. His philosophy: Put on an outfit to start the week—something clean with some color and not too many risks— and if it works, wear it all week. He's told me he buys duplicates if something works out enough. It's not minimalism. It's not "I wear the same thing every day. Fuck you." It's staying put together on a level that registers with those around as a pleasant, constant hum. Dude's not stepping up to the plate every day with the possibility of striking out. He's not trying to Mark McGwire this shit. He's more like Tony Gwynn: nothing but hits, no boom or bust, just a pro out there getting it done.
But I do know this: No one has the time or the energy to care as much about your look as you do.
Dressing for others comes down to one basic truth: People notice what you wear either as a general vibe, or if you really fuck up. You probably want to hear that they also notice the absolute burners, but it's just not true. Your friends might, but friends aren't just any people, they're people conditioned to give a fuck about the things you give a fuck about. Like you. Or what you're wearing. Or how pleased with yourself you are for it. That person whose name you barely know, or talk to maybe once a month? I guarantee you that they're taking notice only when you make some horrible mistake or wear the brightest possible color just to get attention. Otherwise, they care about your clothes about as much as they care about you, which is to say, casually.
That doesn't mean, though, that we have to stop. Or that wishing everyone would look, or at least behave as if they are, becomes irrelevant once I tell you that they probably aren't. When lords and noblemen wore their fine silk gowns and powdered wigs, men's fashion was a status symbol. It was as much about reinforcing social status and putting the less fortunate in their wretched place. Then, at some point, somewhere in the world, something snapped, like how in philosophy everyone realized that mankind was terrifyingly free to determine his own destiny. We gained the ability to simultaneously worry about our appearance while understanding, on some level, that it didn't matter what other people thought. And, over time, it turned into other people—who now didn't matter—just not bothering to care. See, they, not you, are the ones who don't bother. You bother because they don't. Because someone has to.
No one is questioning whether or not clothes have merit. The question is whether or not you have to come correct in the same way your great-great-great-grandfather did. Since you almost certainly don't, it becomes a matter of admitting that you want to do it for your own amusement, and, presumably, for the edification of your friends who like to giggle with you about your choice in kicks. It also involves standing and saying with pride that there's almost no such thing as necessary shopping. Are you fucking things up badly on a regular basis? Can you approximate something like personal style three days out of the week? You're probably doing just fine, as far as others are concerned. But if you're enlightened enough to treat fashion like an art project, or a hobby, or hoarding collectibles, then it doesn’t matter if anyone ever looks at you.
You do it every morning for yourself. You look in the mirror, say what's up and then could care less if anyone around you notices for the rest of the day. You try harder than anyone else precisely because you know it won't make a difference. You accept the absurdity of the menswear condition and solider on regardless. What lies at the end of this path, I can't tell you. I've already told you what I aspire to. But I do know this: No one has the time or the energy to care as much about your look as you do. If you want to peacock out, you risk alienating your audience. Or even worse, you risk forfeiting some of your humanity. There's a fine line between trying too much and just not trying at all. I'll leave it up to you to figure out where it is.
Bethlehem Shoals is a writer living in Portland. You can follow him on Twitter here.