Thursday, December 4, 2014

Of Dress Codes and Speech Codes

I don't always write about dandies or menswear, although I seem to have better luck getting published when I do. One might suspect that magazines and websites are hesitant to publish opinion pieces by people who don't specialize in specific fields, but a brief survey of many websites will show that expertise is rarely the standard, avowing allegiance to a particular group - biological or ideological - is often mistaken for something like a credential, and rational argument is valued less than the ability to use phrases like "I can't even," "so many feels," and "because ____." So I've decided to use this blog to publish those essays I can't help but write whether anyone publishes them or not. I write them partly to stay in practice as a writer, and partly to focus and organize my own thoughts about particular issues. If anybody reads them I hope they get some pleasure out of doing so and recognize that argument, disagreement, and dissent can be very good things. 

Of Dress Codes and Speech Codes

Recently, people have been writing an awful lot about what men are wearing. Not the usual red carpet reportage, but the sort of debate once reserved for Jayne Mansfield’s décolletage. In this case, the controversy is over two shirts (of very different styles,) worn by two men (both of whom work the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields, or STEM) and whether their sartorial choices are examples of institutional sexism (particularly in the male-dominated STEM fields.)

The first shirt was a plain gray cotton t-shirt seen on the torso of Facebook CEO and life-size Lego figurine Mark Zuckerberg. Asked at a press conference why he always wore the same plain outfit, Mr. Zuckerberg replied: “I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I’d feel I’m not doing my job if I spent any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” This may seem like typical Silicon Valley productivity-worshipping egotism to most people, but New York Magazine’s fashion site The Cut published a blog titled “Zuckerberg Explains His Gray T-Shirts, Sounds Pretty Sexist” in which Alison P. Davis, perhaps nervous that an editor would discover that she hadn’t yet been outraged by anything that day, does some sexism exegesis and concludes: “Of course, male CEOs are far too focused on changing the world or building the next Big App to care about something as “silly” or “frivolous” as dressing professionally — they’ll just leave that to Marissa Mayer.” The comments section of the article shows that most readers saw this as a clear case of outrage overreach, considering that Mr. Zuckerberg said nothing about gender at all, and if anything it revealed more about the author’s own ideas on gender roles and the relative vanity of men and women after she crowbarred open the lines in order to not only read between them but insert her own prejudices. Some feminists winced at the article, saying that people should avoid leaps of logic and knee-jerk accusations of misogyny lest the movement be caricatured as a gang of eggshell-skinned puritans examining every statement with a sexism decoder ring.

I was offended by Mr. Zuckerberg’s statement, too, because it revealed a deep-seated prejudice against a small but gorgeous minority group: dandies (and their female counterparts.) As the co-author (with photographer Rose Callahan,) of I am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman and the co-founder of the Secret Empire suiting company, I take umbrage like snuff at the suggestion that paying attention to what you wear is necessarily superficial, frivolous, or inconsequential. As Lord Illingworth in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance says, “People nowadays are so absolutely superficial that they don’t understand the philosophy of the superficial.” Mr. Zuckerberg’s anti-dandyism bias is one tentacle of the insidious “normcore” pseudo-trend, exemplified by The Gap’s stultifying “Dress Normal” ad campaign. These are microagressions that scuff the shoe and chill the soul.

Shirt number two was a short-sleeve black button down with a large repeating print of scantily-clad buxom women with guns, and it was worn by Dr. Matt Taylor on the occasion of the Rosetta team of the European Space Agency landing a probe on a comet 6.4 billion kilometers from Earth. The shirt, worn during a television interview, was blasted as a sexist “microagression” and cited as a prime example of the macho atmosphere that discourages young women from seeking careers in STEM. Dr. Taylor was soon at the center of an online firestorm that distracted from the scientific achievement and resulted in a humiliating and tearful public act of contrition on his part.

Some suggested that anybody discouraged from studying science by something as inconsequential as a novelty shirt probably wasn’t cut out for a career in the sciences anyway. Feminists responded that this was merely one example of a pervasive sexist culture in the sciences. The opposition asked why women don’t run in fear from art history or English literature because of odalisques or Lolita. The feminists replied, archly, that men were getting a taste of their own medicine now that people were scrutinizing and criticizing their appearance, too. Their critics asked, arch-archly, if they were suggesting that Dr. Taylor had been “asking for it,” because of what he was wearing?

One could continue adding arches to this arcade, but there were other points, chiefly that it wasn’t the “appropriate” thing to wear for the occasion. Some asked why his colleagues (including several women,) hadn’t said anything to stop him. This slightly more subtle argument has more to do with occasion than intent: “don’t wear a pin-up shirt to your rocket science interview, it isn’t appropriate - this literally isn’t rocket science.” Dr. Taylor’s ersatz defenders said that it obviously wasn’t his intention to offend anybody and the women on his team didn’t seem to mind. Feminists argued that this just proved that sexism is so ingrained that an obviously offensive shirt wasn’t seen as such by the team, including women. Casual sexism was their watchword.

As in the case of Mr. Zuckerberg’s words, I found Dr. Taylor’s shirt mildly upsetting, but the “casual” bothered me far more than the “sexism.” A man who just helped achieve a scientific marvel wore that on the big day? If a presumably brilliant person’s idea of the perfect celebratory outfit is a nudie-lady bowling shirt, slightly more dignified than a piano-key necktie without rising to the same level of kitsch, we may have crossed the casual-wear Rubicon. But the pro-Taylor camp had a more interesting point than it knew when it said that he had a right to dress however he wanted and it was nobody’s business to tell him otherwise: this is a matter of free speech.

It has become axiomatic to the point of cliché to say “I express myself in how I dress,” but there is truth to it (although, to extend the speech metaphor, unless you’re designing and making your own clothing you’re expressing yourself by quoting others.) Clothing choices are generally protected as free speech by the First Amendment. Exceptions might be made, as in the case of incitement to violence (a swastika t-shirt is completely legal in public, one reading “Kill the Jews” might have a harder time in court,) but for the most part we can wear what we want. And we live in a time and place of unprecedented sartorial egalitarianism: women wear pants, men occasionally wear dresses, and female “topless rights” advocates continually insist on reminding everyone that they’re legally allowed to be just as obnoxious as the sweaty men who walk around in public bare-chested.

So why does the average Western person’s sartorial spectrum begin with Mormon and end with refugee? Some feminists online recently lionized a male Australian newscaster who wore the same suit every day for a year; when nobody commented on it, he concluded that he’d proven a double standard of appearance. As far as I can see, what he really proved was that men’s clothes have gotten so boring that you can’t tell them apart. If he’d worn a different, exciting, thoughtful outfit each day, people would be commenting on it. This summer President Obama departed from tradition and wore a light-colored suit while addressing the nation about ISIS. He was promptly pilloried by pundits who argued that his attire did not reflect the gravity of his message. Again, the important point was missed by most: that suit was an awful Ahmedinejad taupe, the color of the drop ceiling of a strip-mall MRI office. Kudos to the President for trying something different, but it was an awful suit, and it looked shabby and un-Presidential no matter the talking points.

Which brings us back to “appropriateness.” If clothing is protected First Amendment speech, then it follows that an abridgment of sartorial rights is censorship. In other words: dress codes are speech codes. Naturally, private institutions have some control over their dress codes: a restaurant can refuse a topless rights activist of any gender, a church can ask that women cover their tantalizing shoulders, a school can insist on a uniform to keep students focused.

When it comes to dress codes (and speech in general, for that matter,) I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I object to banning the headscarf for the same reason I object to making it mandatory: in both cases it’s an authority telling someone how to dress, a government in the first place and a deity (or his cronies,) in the second. I do appreciate some exceptions - it seems right to me that full-face coverings shouldn’t be permitted in government buildings for security reasons (and frankly, that strictest of dress codes, the Burqa, is the apotheosis of everything I’m against.) Ideally, our permissive and ostensibly equal-opportunity sartorial culture should inspire people to experiment, to take the opportunity afforded by freedom to clothe themselves with some personal panache and a modicum of intellect. Instead, most people are trend-chasers and sartorial agnostics, the sweat-panted and flip-flopped multitudes who consider ease a greater virtue than style.

Perhaps it was the stricter, pre-Woodstock, pre-JFK, pre-Silicon Valley dress codes which allowed dandies and eccentrics to so magnificently push and bend the box they were put in. Maybe dress codes are the convent’s narrow walls, the scanty plot of ground where they paradoxically find freedom. When I interviewed the men in my book I asked each one if he would dress the way he does if everyone else dressed that way. About half of them were excited at the thought of more people dressing up, but the other half confessed that they’d have to find some other way of standing apart from the crowd. One can only hope that the excremental state of dress in America will be apt fertilizer for new, bolder sartorial expression.

What needs to be refuted is Mr. Zuckerberg’s cop-out dismissal of dressing as something separate or distracting from the important things in life (like online socializing, presumably.) Clothes are important - if you opt out you might freeze to death or get arrested. Like food, they can be fun when approached with passion and thought. The Zuckerberg theory that seriousness and dressing well are mutually exclusive is a complete reverse of the previously accepted idea that dressing well is a sign of professionalism, self-respect, and dignity. Look at the civil rights marches of the 1960’s and you’ll see men and women deliberately dressed their best, even when being attacked by dogs or hit by high-powered hoses. For black Americans fighting for their human rights, nice clothes were a powerful symbol of dignity, a repudiation of the dehumanization their ancestors endured as chattel - naked livestock at auction.

One of the dandies in my book, Dr. Andre Churchwell, tells a story about his father Robert Churchwell, the first black reporter on the Nashville Banner. Although he was covering the civil rights beat he wasn’t allowed a desk at the paper’s segregated offices and had to work from home. But each morning he still put on his Brooks Brothers suit and tie, even if he wasn’t leaving the house. He was a professional, and that’s how his children learned about the power of dressing well. Nowadays people may scoff at style as a superficial affectation, and insist that it’s wrong to judge people by how they dress. But dress, like religion and philosophy and unlike race and gender, is a personal choice, and for people like Robert Churchwell it was anything but superficial; it was a way of insisting that they be taken seriously as people who care enough about themselves to put effort and intellect into every aspect of life no matter how mundane.

Should we judge Dr. Taylor by how he’s dressed? Or should we be hypocrites like the dreadlocked hippy who screams, “don’t judge me,” one minute and calls someone a “suit,” the next? At one point it may have surprised people to see that the ESA doesn’t have a more “professional” dress code, but people didn’t even notice until something as gaudy as Dr. Taylor’s shirt assaulted their eyeballs. We take it for granted that scientists in our time wouldn’t wear old-fashioned clichés like lab coats and neckties. In fact, Dr. Taylor’s shirt may have been an example, like NASA’s “Mohawk Guy”, of scientists trying to show the public that they’re not a bunch of stuffy nerds.
“Hey,” they seem to say, “We’re just like you!”

“No you’re not!” I shout back, “You’re rocket scientists and you just put a probe on a comet! This is the feat of a lifetime. You could be wearing gold tuxedos right now. Why are you dressed for a barbecue?”

1 comment:

  1. The bizarre bigotry of tech dress codes is enraging: