I used to work at a design agency in Brooklyn where this uncanny thing happened all the time: Two coworkers would arrive in the morning and, coincidentally, they’d be wearing the same outfit. And instead of going about their business, my coworkers would make a minor event of their matching looks — laughing, rolling their eyes, then taking a photograph that they’d upload to their feeds. At first, these interactions seemed innocuous enough, but when they happened repeatedly, month after month, they started to have an unsettling effect. Cut a figure into a folded piece of construction paper and a long row of couples emerges, all holding hands. This is the phenomenon of the worktwin: a succession of seemingly cloned colleagues posing for the camera wearing A.P.C. jeans and Everlane tops.
I’ve been developing a theory about worktwins. It has some basic tenets. Worktwins tend to work at advertising agencies. They work at architecture firms. They work at places where their work “means” something, where work isn’t supposed to feel like work. They dress consistent with their gender. They dress like they take themselves and making money seriously, but not too seriously. They shop on sites that aggregate fashion brands and prioritize the neutered colors found in upscale hotel rooms. They work with their friends, or people who could be their friends, or who live near their friends. They wear denim tops and dark jeans. Chunky white sweaters and clogs. Grey hoodies. Stripes.
At the agency where I worked, people dressed well. It didn't look like my coworkers were going to work, which was, of course, the whole point. They were “creatives,” with half-sleeve tattoos, black jeans, and spotless, white-soled Nikes. Their looks were about precision, ease, and hipness, the very qualities our clients were trying to cultivate. To better fit in with my expensive-looking office mates, I bought a pair of blue Raf Simons pants and sheepishly paid a barber in Greenpoint $55 to give me the same high-and-tight cut of my male colleagues. Sometimes I’d wear a T-shirt with the insignia of my friend’s punk band, but even then it felt like I was playing the part somehow.
I wasn’t the only one preoccupied with what to wear to work. During the day when I’d walk through the office on my way to the kitchen for a snack, I’d peek at people’s computers and at any given time, about a third of my coworkers were shopping for clothes. It seemed to me that people worked in order to buy clothes that they wore to work, where they sat and bought more clothes. And yet despite all this, or maybe because of all this, we all ended up looking pretty much the same.
Wearing a uniform or a quasi-uniform to the office is nothing new, but the rules and conventions used to be a lot clearer. We had skinny ties in the ’60s, separates in the ’70s, shoulder pads and pantsuits in the ’80s. But by the ’90s, as the nature of work started to change, so did shifting norms in office dress. “Creativity, network existence, and the need to become a self-entrepreneur” prevailed as dominant values within late capitalism, Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski write in their 1999 book, New Spirit of Capitalism, and was reflected in a more expressive form of “business casual” dress. Khakis, button downs, and loafers pervaded the office, with opportunities for personal embellishment.
In 1992, the Levi Strauss company, in an attempt to promote its Dockers brand, capitalized on this trend by sending a manual entitled “A Guide to Casual Businesswear” to more than 25,000 human resources departments nationwide. The document coached workers to “leave flashy clothing (including T-shirts with printed messages) at home” and to “avoid ripped jeans and ‘distressed’ clothes.” But nothing epitomized this shift towards informality more than the bro-nerd culture of Silicon Valley, its sneakers-to-work ethos signaling an emphasis on efficiency, authenticity, and the eroding distinction between work and anything other than work.
It seemed to me that people worked in order to buy clothes that they wore to work, where they sat and bought more clothes.
The more work invaded all aspects of our lives, the more we were invited to show up to work dressed like we weren’t at work at all. To meet the needs of affluent, liberal-arts trained workers like me, retailers like J Crew, Mr. Porter, and Everlane offer “desk-to-drinks” outfits (think high-waisted pants and drapey, simple blouses) that allow for seamless transitions between work and life, a distinction that’s been pretty much obliterated anyway by the demands of always-on Slack rooms and late-night reply-all emails.
There are also certain written, and unwritten, codes that continue to determine what “looking professional” actually looks like — standards that vary across profession, gender, and race (California's anti-discrimination laws were only updated this month to ban discrimination against people — namely black women — who wear their hair natural to work). These standards are harder to navigate than ever before, leading to a general flattening of style that makes the worktwin phenomenon so pervasive in the first place.
Dressing for work is now a strange balance of performative professionalism and personal expression. But as the German sociologist Georg Simmel insists in his 1957 essay “Fashion,” personal dress has always been about the contradiction between conformity and individuation. “Fashion represents nothing more than the tendency towards social equalization with the desire for individual differentiation and change,” he writes.
When dressing for work, we want to look good and we want to fit in. But we also want to look like “ourselves,” so we chose some colors over others, privilege a certain type of cut; we cite eras, trends, and other people’s clothes. What can be so deflating and glitchy about being a worktwin is that it lays bare the calculations and pretensions wrapped up in this daily practice of dress-up. And what’s worse: you have to stand there looking like you’re amused.
This is how to pose like a worktwin: stand still like you’re zombies. Or pose with your right legs outstretched like that dancing twin emoji. Reach around and hold each other by the waist or stand apart and act shocked. Cross the same leg to emphasize your twinness, your uniformity, or hold each other’s hands like the twins in The Shining. Put your thumbs up. Point at your worktwin. Hold your morning coffees high.
At the agency where I worked, there were some worktwins who really enjoyed being worktwins. I could see it in their smiles, the familiar way they posed for the camera. These worktwins were work friends, and sometimes even actual friends. The coincidence of wearing the same outfit was proof of how much time they spent around each other — proximity causes convergence. Their closeness was born of circumstance and being a worktwin underpinned the unlikely intimacy of their relationship. Who knows if they’d be friends in another context? But at work they were comrades in arms, and their uniforms proved it.
This is how to pose like a worktwin: stand still like you’re zombies.
There were other worktwins who were mismatched in some way — in age or rank — which was made way more obvious when they were forced to pose and smile beside the copy machines. I could see the strain on their faces, a silent protest insisting that I’m not actually like this other person at all. There were the feuding worktwins. The worktwins who had never actually spoken. More often than not, a member of the office staff took this photograph and posted it to the company Instagram account, unaware of the resentment or awkwardness they stoked by calling attention to their superficial similarity.
Finally, there were the worktwins whose discomfort proved that worktwinning was just another reason to hate work. They didn’t like being reminded of all the hours they spent at the office and seemed agitated by their coworkers gathering around to gawk at the banal fact of two people dressing alike. They would much rather sit down, login, and get paid without having to participate in this bizarre trope of office life. These worktwins — indignant and resistant — were the ones with whom I empathized the most.
It’s important to clarify that people who are actually required to wear uniforms for work are not in danger of being worktwins; their personal style is out of their hands. Worktwins are endemic to glamorous, esoteric professions where individuality and self expression aren’t just valued, they’re actually part of your job. As a worktwin, you laugh when you say “It’s like we’re becoming the same person,” but you’re privately worried by that same thought. The anxiety of the worktwin is the fear of influence — that you’re becoming something less than special. That work, instead of bringing out your most actualized self, is turning you into a replica of someone else.
It’s also an anxiety about class that results from the blurring of divisions between certain types of labor. Because look: a designer isn’t supposed to be wearing a uniform. They’re smarter than that. Way richer than that. The uniformed laborer is interchangeable, homogeneous and expendable; worktwins make a performance out of their accidental resemblance to show what a joke that would be — to get confused with one another, to get confused with one of them.
There’s another, more disturbing, connotation to the phrase worktwin: when people of color are confused with one another by their white colleagues. A Washington Post article earlier this year described how such employees have dubbed one another their worktwins: “The implication is that, while white people are seen as individuals, other groups are often viewed as a monolith, with their race or ethnicity becoming the defining characteristic of who they are.” Worktwins of this sort are trapped in a far more demeaning and private experience of mis-identification, their race being the thing their colleagues can’t look past. Nobody is posting about this type of worktwin on their company’s Instagram.
I work in San Francisco now. After I moved out here, my sister (my twin sister, incidentally) kept asking me if my style had changed. I’ll admit I’ve worn flip-flops out of the house, and not just to the beach, and I didn’t even feel that embarrassed about it.
Anyone will tell you that the difference between fashion in San Francisco and New York is that out here, tech workers wear hoodies emblazoned with the logo of their company, or Arcteryx vests with the name of their venture capital firm plastered across the chest. It’s totally normal to find a group like this at a bar or on a street corner, all casually and inadvertently uniformed. It may look like I moved to a place populated mostly by worktwins, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Tech workers have come full circle, willfully donning corporately sanctioned uniforms, their Facebook hoodies replacing the Stanford and Michigan sweatshirts of their undergrad years. But these techies aren’t worktwins. Their resemblance isn’t accidental. It isn’t fun or surprising or revealing of any emotional kinship, it’s rote and a kiss on the cheek of capitalism. But maybe the appeal of these uniforms is that they’re just easier, and we all just kind of want to belong anyway— why go through so much work choosing what to wear when we all end up dressing the same?