Throughout the rise and epic fall of Theranos CEO and high-profile scammer Elizabeth Holmes, her signature black turtleneck has taken center stage. Holmes has admitted to owning about 150 of them, calling them her “uniform.” In adopting this austere, techno-monk look, she brilliantly used fashion psychology to mold herself internally and externally, even when she wasn’t speaking a single (deep-voiced) word.
“I do have to disclose that I’ve been in black turtlenecks since I was 7,” Holmes says in the new HBO documentary The Inventor. She denies copying Apple CEO Steve Jobs, pointing out that he wore jeans, but the similarity in their aesthetic is clear. Perhaps their intent was similar as well.
Professor Carolyn Mair, Ph.D., a consultant at psychology.fashion and author of The Psychology of Fashion, tells Inverse that wearing a daily uniform is convenient for the wearer, both in shaping the way they function internally and the way they wish to be seen outwardly.
“Wearing the same clothing type or clothing style to work every day is a way to remove the need to solve one problem in your day: what to wear!” she says. Though it seems frivolous, this dilemma is more than about saving a few minutes in the morning.
In the 2011 biography Steve Jobs, journalist Walter Isaacson dives into why Jobs wore black turtlenecks. “He also came to like the idea of having a uniform for himself, both because of its daily convenience (the rationale he claimed) and its ability to convey a signature style,” Isaacson wrote.
Freeing Up Internal Space
Here’s how Mair explains this “convenience” rationale: “Choosing to wear clothes that you feel comfortable and confident in becomes automatic, so there’s no need to waste valuable cognitive resources on decision-making about what to wear,” she says. If you wear the same thing to work every day, it eliminates the concern that you are ever dressed inappropriately.
In other words, the benefit of a work uniform — especially one as stark and minimalist as the Jobsean/Holmesean black turtleneck — on the wearer is freedom from worry, so that the mind can be used for more important decisions, whether that’s running a revolutionary computer company or a revolutionary fraud. This idea is consistent with the idea of “decision fatigue,” a concept in psychology that suggests we get worse at making decisions when we have to make a lot of them.
“Worrying uses cognitive resources that can be better spent on dealing with more pressing issues which demand a conscious effort to solve,” says Mair.
Of course, the black turtleneck makes a public statement as well. The work uniform, says Mair, “becomes the wearer’s signature, their identity. People recognize the wearer as someone who dresses in this particular way.”
We can only speculate about the specific identity that Holmes intended to project. Certainly, there is the similarity to Jobs, a Silicon Valley icon whose career Holmes seemingly tried to emulate. As Vanessa Friedman points out in the New York Times, Holmes’ “relentless sameness” manifested in the “techie’s equivalent of the heroic uniform, at least as read by the outside world.”
The sleek look is also very much in line with the minimalist ethos adopted by many Silicon Valley types. “In Silicon Valley, the minimalism fetish can perhaps be traced back to Steve Jobs’ famously austere 1980s apartment (he sat on the floor) and the attendant simplicity of Apple products,” Kyle Chayka wrote in the Times in 2016. “Pare down, and you, too, could run a $700 billion company.”
Mair points out a more practical reason for wearing black as well, saying that it’s a good color to wear if you want to wear the same thing every day because “black doesn’t attract as much attention as brighter colors.” (Ditto, she says, for grey and navy.)
The turtleneck style, meanwhile, has a storied history beyond Jobs’ iconic look. It was worn first as a utilitarian garment in the 1800s then transformed through its various adoptees —which included second-wave feminists and activists in the ‘70s — into an item connoting power and intellect (and, briefly, prudishness). Now, says Mair, turtlenecks are “casual and modest (as long as they’re not skintight), so where smart casual is acceptable, I’d say this style of clothing is highly suitable for work.”
A Platform for Change
The consistency of a uniform is, by design, boring, and that persistent dullness can be used to great effect. Holmes’ now-notorious look is a blank, black canvas that, if suddenly interrupted with a different color or style, would signal a significant change to the public.
“Having a work uniform can be advantageous on the occasion the wearer wants to make a statement or project a different identity, as we notice things that are different rather than things that are the same,” says Mair.
As far as The Inventor shows, Holmes is still wearing the black turtleneck, but she’s definitely got reason to rebrand. Former Theranos employee Ana Arriola, interviewed for the recent Holmes-centered ABC podcast The Dropout, claimed Holmes wore “frumpy Christmas sweaters” before her turtleneck epiphany. If this is where sleekness has gotten her, frumpy might not be such a bad look.