I See By My Outfit

  Jerome Shea       February 24, 2007      Weekend Wonk

“Clothes,” they say, “make the man.” But that is just the start of what they say. The more you think about clothes, the more fascinating the subject becomes. And before I go any further, I would like to acknowledge and recommend a good book on the subject, Alison Lurie’s The Language of Clothes (which is probably out of print, alas, so you will have to scrounge for it). Lurie builds an extended metaphor around the idea that clothes are actually a language, which is an idea that we can, I think, readily agree with: what you wear “speaks volumes” about you. (And as with language, you probably cannot NOT say anything. The outfit that says, “I don’t care how I dress” does, after all, say that, with all its implications intact.)

To be sure, clothes do more than that. I would not venture out naked in Nome in November, and that has as much to do with common sense as it does with modesty. Swimming trunks would serve for modesty, but I would be wearing my heaviest parka and mukluks, clothing as protection from the elements. Or sometimes clothes are protection from other dangers, like a bulletproof vest or a beekeeper’s hood or a construction worker’s hardhat.

“Hardhat” is an example—at least in my mind—of an article of clothing or gear which bridged the gap between simple protection and political statement. Back in the 60’s, when the Vietnam issue had the country divided so, college peaceniks and blue collar workers were especially bitterly opposed—spoiled punks versus patriots who worked for a living (and were more likely to be drafted), in Joe Sixpack’s view. I remember passing a construction site and seeing the customary sign “Only Hardhats Allowed” and actually thinking that it was a thumb in the eye of us spoiled punks (“Stay the hell out if you know what’s good for you!”). Ever since then, at least for me, “hardhat” has been shorthand for a sociopolitical stance.

If practical clothing tries (but fails) to be mute, other outfits shout loud. Lawyer friends tell me that, more and more, in the privacy of their offices it is always “casual Friday”: polo shirts, jeans, running shoes, whatever. But when those lawyers are due in court, out come the wingtips and the power suits, and (see above) one could argue that that outfit, also, is protective gear. After all, they have professional image and reputation to protect. And they are about to stand in front of a judge whose somber judicial robes will trump whatever Brooks Brothers can offer.

Speaking of which, we academics have our special power outfit, of course, the academic gown, that remnant of the Middle Ages complete with resplendent hood. We usually wear it only once a year, at Commencement, but what a flock of peacocks (even the peahens are peacocks on that day) we make! And, human nature being what it is, the outfit is not complete without an attitude of casual boredom to accompany it (“It’s a pain to wear this get-up, but one has one’s obligations, you know.”). There was a professor at my undergraduate school who did wear the gown every day (sans hood, thank goodness). He turned the highly symbolic—there’s the word that has been lurking around the edges of this discussion—into the highly practical. Not only did he never have to worry about what to wear, but we always suspected that in the sweltering days of May and September he was nekkid as a jaybird underneath, a trick your parish priest can pull off, too, should he choose to wear his cassock.

The cassock and the academic gown are also uniforms, even if the priest and the professor can freely choose whether to wear them or not. The policeman, the general, the Playboy Bunny, and the guy that works at Jack’s Greasy Chicken Shack have no such choice. The difference is that the cop and the brasshat probably take pride in their uniforms while the Bunny and the frycook at Jack’s might resent such sartorial slavery. Uniforms, it has been pointed out, take away or at least tamp down one’s individuality. Of all outfits, uniforms say the least about the individual, they mold the individual to the group, they discourage the rogue in us. This is why there is always a push somewhere to put uniforms on school kids and why there was always a (perceived) difference between the tarted up sweeties in the public high school and the demure maidens at St. Stanislaus, with their white blouses and dark blue jumpers. A few years ago our department chairman announced that next semester we would finally get our department uniforms. One of my slower colleagues gave an audible gasp before he realized that the chairman was having his little joke.

He gasped because no other group, I think, takes more pride in individuality—surely tenure has something to do with it—than does a college faculty, and as society in general gets more casual so does your average professor. “My brazen intellect is protection enough for me,” we seem to say. “I don’t need jacket and tie on top of it.” My own academic/sartorial career followed a well-worn path. As a grad student barely older than the freshmen I was employed to teach, I wore jacket and tie and even carried an attache case (O, the memory still stings!) to protect myself. Later, the jacket and tie came off, except for a few years when I had the misfortune to be a low-level administrator (you never knew when you might have to sit in on a meeting with the dean). For the last dozen years my outfit has been unvarying. This man who did not get west of the Mississippi until he was twenty-two now wears—day in and day out—boots, jeans, denim shirt, vest and bolo tie.

So sometimes I have to wrestle with the embarrassing question, “When does an outfit become a costume?”

See you next week.

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