by Alexander Freeling

When I was a grad student, the weekend had little significance. Studying literature, I only needed to be in meetings occasionally, and I dressed accordingly: the choice between jeans and chinos, linen or flannel or Oxford cloth was a whim. I wore a jacket some days, but only for variety.

The cultural theorist and musicologist Theodor Adorno used to say that he was lucky because his work and leisure were the same activities: listening to music, reading, writing, teaching. He didn’t need “free time” because his work life wasn’t “unfree.” Adorno was comparing his situation to people with factory, service and office jobs, clocking in to work, and clocking out to have fun, people wearing a uniform from Monday to Friday, and dressing for themselves at the weekend.

Since Adorno’s time, things have changed. The decline of strict dress codes (and factory jobs) mean that if you work a traditional 9-5 Monday to Friday job, it’s less and less likely that you are required to dress utterly differently when you work. The rise of the “gig economy” means that fewer people experience that strict sartorial border between work and leisure. And as students, freelancers and self-employed people know, this kind of freedom cuts both ways: the whole week is your own, but it’s never truly free because you could always be working.

The decline in sartorial distinctions had positive effects. Without the strictures of uniform, clothes can articulate personality rather than conformity. Even if you love conservative business dress, the meaning of a dark suit and soporific tie is different if you wear them by choice. Some lament the decline of classic clothing, but what the “casual revolution” overturned was the sense of obligation. It emphasized the positive reasons people are drawn to suits: the craft, the silhouettes, the expression of style or statement or sex appeal. The gray flannel suit was a symbol of corporate orthodoxy, but wearing one now amongst a sea of four-season worsteds is a sign of style.

Nevertheless, distinctions between work and leisure can be gratifying. I’m no longer a student, but I have a job with a flexible dress code, so there’s nothing stopping me wearing jeans to the office. I choose not to because there’s pleasure in the differences. A soft, textured jacket is not out of place in even my fairly casual office, and putting one on lends a sense of focus. Equally, I now associate denim with sleeping in, lengthy brunches, and afternoons spent in conversation and magazines. My newest jeans are still dark indigo, but each degree of fading will be a mark of time well spent, be it hiking, in cafés, or just on the sofa. The jacket and jeans are both considered choices; neither is merely a break from wearing the other.

Adorno’s point in 1969 was that leisure is most distinct when work is miserable. Dressing for the weekend doesn’t mean trying to recreate an absolute separation between leisure and work, but it might mean finding and enjoying the differences.