A Beautiful Form of Politeness
Years later a blog post would read: When it comes to dressing well, American culture is so self-fulfilled that it is not only disregarded, this courtesy of self-presentation, but has turned that disregard into a virtue. ’We are too superior | busy | cool to bother how we look to other people, and so we can wear pajamas to school and underwear to the mall. Americanah, Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche
The Montgomery Ward catalogue - a now defunct retailer promising satisfaction guaranteed to all rural and urban customers across America - served as a sacred, secret text, conveying to me, a little red-headed girl in Houston, Texas, the knowledge of how to dress like a man. Carefully turning each page in the men’s section, sun streaming through my bedroom window, I studied each page, dreaming of the day when I would dress like these men. “Two smart looks,” one layout read. “Dacron polyester adds long wear, wrinkle-resistance to Avril® rayon. Extra strong-cotton Avril® pockets, trim.” The listing asked for the buyer’s waist, then inseam. No such information was required of pants for women. The y-front underwear seemed like a dream come true. The bulge eluded me, I knew but I didn’t care. If I could somehow, someway, wear that underwear, I would feel better. Even at six I knew this, however vague the details of timing and execution remained. The gender of clothing confronted me everywhere. Left- versus right-sided buttons; the same for zippers; dresses and suits; the aforementioned waist and inseam options for men but not women; degrees of showing and hiding, concealment and revelation that could, for women, be dangerous both in winter and sadly at work or on the streets. The clothing I yearned to wear was stitched in ways that reflected me. What I missed or overlooked or simply wasn’t taught was how those same stitches also reflected class choices and my class standing.
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Clothes don’t matter, except when they do. A hoodie seems meaningless, a simple source of warmth. For Trayvon Martin, the hoodie represented a death sentence. Clothes do say something about us, judging each other by the cut and by the material. Putting the yes in polyester implies a bias for natural fibers, typically far more expensive, and therefore available largely for wealthy buyers, than human-made fabrics. The drape, how the clothing, falls towards and away from the body, projects a wearer’s fitness level, their income level, their taste level. Well-fitted clothing, often cut to a specific person’s body, moves with a person, better than clothing purchased off the rack, designed from an average of body types and sizes, and costing hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars less than bespoke. Rich people can afford to be comfortable. Such comfort remains elusive for everyone else. Clothes aren’t the most important thing about a person. Far from it. But to say that clothes have no consequence at all seems naive. Besides Trayvon Martin’s hoodie, we have the canard thrown at women: his violence resulted from your dress. Men’s clothing, and the ability to now wear it all the time, has taught me a lot about myself. Suits, ties, french cuffs, I love all the ways there are to dress as a man. On hormones for maybe six months, a friend shopped with me to help me find men’s clothing. At seeing the huge smile on his face, I purchased a pink-ruffled tuxedo shirt, sophisticated with a hint peacockery, just like guys wore these to weddings in the 70s, the decade of my early adolescence. I wore this shirt to court when I had changed my name legally, while the shirt and a weather-worn white truck driver taught me my first powerful lesson about men, masculinity and clothing. Clothing conveys privilege and power in many forms. As a now white, heterosexual man, I eschew blue jeans. Men can certainly wear well-fitted jeans in style, jeans in a hip-hop style or even a punk style. They key is that they are all wearing a particular style for their own reasons. My decision to not wear jeans is a response to an all together different kind of man: the upper-middle class one who chooses to wear baggy, ill-fitting jeans that looks like an adult diaper butt with puddles of material at the ankles. Along with the jeans he usually wears a stretched t-shirt. He thinks he’s keeping it real, choosing comfort over conformity. But I would argue it is a kind of class privilege to be able to dress this way without worrying about what other people will think about you, your upbringing, your mother, your intelligence. We have a slew of epithets for poor and working-class people who dress badly. No such equivalent epithets exists for upper class people. The ability to dress like a slob all the time epitomizes a particular kind of class condescencion, class snobbery and rudeness directed at others. Ill-fitting clothing says you are not important to me. Ill-fitting clothing says I can dress badly without fear of that it will reflect badly on me as a person. Ill-fitting clothing says my comfort, my ease, my laziness are the most important facts of our time together. I am upper middle-class and dressing like a slob disrespects the people I am with. How many events I’ve attended where the focus has been on people of color and the majority of white, upper class men appear as though they just rose from a sleep of the dead. So consumed are they by their self-loathing, they can’t shift their attention to others. There they are, looking like slobbish fools. Jeans nor t-shirts nor sneakers look bad in and of themselves. A persistent lack of concern about clothing will turn even the newest, darkest pair of jeans - not matter how expensive - into a greasy pile of rags. In becoming a man, and finally have the permission to wear what I’ve always wanted to wear, I’ve learned the importance of dressing respectfully. Jeans. T-shirts. Sneakers. All of them can be worn with self-respect and respect for others. No article of clothing emanates evil. But through our clothing we suggest or state outright, our position in the world. Through clothing I’ve learned how rich people crush others with one of many double-standards. I’ve learned that poor and working-class people don’t have the luxury of dressing sloppily and having others see it as hip or cool. No. We simply see it as the inability to dress properly. Through clothing I’ve learned I can’t pretend I come from a different class background by wearing hipster work clothes. I can’t buy my way into the working-classes through my Red Wing work boots and Pendleton wool shirt jackets. Doing so just makes me look like poser. The only people who are fooled by this costume are the rich people who can afford the $500.00 selvedge denim Levi’s designed from their 1930s archives. Through clothing I’ve learned about subtlety and concern. With my now subdued color palette (blues and browns, mostly) I endeavor to convey that as much I as I care about myself, I care about others more. I want others to feel this about me before I ever open my mouth. I want to be the steady, reliable white guy in the background, working hard to make others shine, not the slovenly dressed rich white guy shouting at everyone, butting in and generally making everyone around him uncomfortable. Clothing for me has become a beautiful form of politeness. I’m old enough and dorky enough to think manners still matter. That common respect - a please here, a thank you there, pressed shirts and pants, looking everyone in the eye - makes a difference. Surveying the last twenty years of living as a man I realize I’m striving to create a uniform of politeness, a clothing of concern. This effort is probably meaningless in the scheme of our civil rights, our safety and free and easy medical access on demand. Yet I still feel compelled to do it. Clothing is one of the few areas where I have near complete control. Why concede it to advertisers and retailers who care nothing about me? Dressing as I do I recognize haters may accuse me of upholding the binary gender system. Clothes can provide both orthodoxy and revolution. Is my clothing repressive or revolutionary? I think the latter, and, in the end, I am going to die, and I prefer to be politely, beautifully dressed when that happens.
This essay appears in Moxie, Volume One