Once in a while, I read pissed-off posts on the socials by people carrying on about dress codes in schools. The offended Moms are usually socially liberal types who profess that their offspring should be able to express themselves sartorially without judgement from Mrs. Grundy. I like these Moms, the faux-libs, because they often dress well and secretly want to have sex in church parking lots in daylight. They want their kids to be free of silly rules. Maybe your Mom was (is) one. I salute her. I, too, like daylight.
Rules are a part of life, though, even in places where breaking them has its own orthodoxy. Take creative industries, for instance. They’re often as rigid, uptight, and conservative as Mrs. Grundy in a reverse, perverse sort of way. If a CEO were to come into the office, scratch his beard, clap and announce that everyone henceforth must wear pressed shirts with collars, crisp dress slacks and polished footwear, there’d be immediate bewilderment and exodus. (Mess with yoga pants and plaid at your peril, young entrepreneur.) Yet we did a photoshoot for the personnel webpage where I work recently, and the number of plaid shirts was striking, like there was—horror—a code.
You will say that the guys dressed like Paul Bunyan by choice instead of edict. I’m colorblind in that range. The results are the same—social acceptance trumps originality almost every time, and it’s 100x more strict than any Victorian scruple. Me, I endorse dress codes of all sorts, because they make it easier subvert loneliness, that most debilitating form of human disease. I especially approve of dress codes at schools. If you think otherwise, I am going to bet you were never so poor or hopeless with regard to clothes that you were an object of shame and ridicule.
MARY METCALF’S DRESS
I recall junior high school in small town Kentucky. I had three pairs of pants, all too big in the waist, and the school dress code forbade jeans on boys and pants of any sort on the girls. The latter I did not mind, being fascinated with legs and panties, and my pencil found the floor of the aisle of Mr. Long’s math class more often than paper as he droned about decimals and distributive properties. A girl named Mary who liked to wear a white and red striped knit minidress had a naughty habit of intentionally exhibiting of her unmentionables which, I learned, she distributed through the week along a spectrum of various pastels. I became very sophisticated at calculating the percentage of pencil drops which would result in successful glimpses of pink, beige, or baby blue. Later, in college, I would become a math major. I blame Mary.
But my own pants? Awful. (Here is an exercise: try and guess my age from the descriptions I am about to provide.) One pair was tweedish, bell-bottomed, and very scratchy, held up by a belt that drew the loops together about my tiny waist. I had not yet graduated to pant sizes measured in inches, and wore boys size 16 (slim, but never slim enough for my skinny ass). I owned a slightly better fitting pair of slacks, a poly-cotton plaid of orange, tan and burgundy, giant pleats and bell-bottoms cuffs. These I wore more often than the tweedy ones, which were so itchy that I assumed I had an allergy to the strange fiber that Mom said was “just wool,” thinking, maybe the steel kind, like Brillo?
I don’t remember the third pair. I owned no jeans. Levi’s were the britches of cool, older kids, who bought them at a hardware store downtown and hung out at pool halls. Even then, there was that nonsense about wearing them in a bathtub of warm water and walking around until they dried to a custom fit. You thought that Imogene and Willie thought that up? Nope. I tried it when I finally got big enough for Mom to buy me a pair in high school. The pants did, in fact, shrink. They also turned my legs blue, making me look like a starving hypothermia victim.
I describe all this not just to illustrate that dress codes helped me learn about girls. I learned that had they been even more strict, requiring handsome, muscular boys to also bear the humiliation of ill-fitting, itchy pants, I might have been in sympathetic company instead of getting hammered during dodgeball in gym class. Those things hurt. I also probably wouldn’t be working out my childhood issues with madras and tartan in a public forum.
We do not do a service telling young people who don’t have well-developed armor and selfhood they can just wear any ol’ thing and the rest of us will see their inner goodness and love ‘em all the same. Kids are mean, and grownups are often just great big kids. I recall something I read once, to the effect of “never appeal to a man’s better nature; he might not have one.” While trebly true in school, it is exponentially true in the real world. If you don’t believe me, try going to work in zebra striped parachute pants and a purple mullet wig, then step out to the Turnip Truck for lunch, see if anyone sits next to you and strikes up a conversation. Ten bucks says you’ll be lonely before your chowder gets cold.
The cultural aesthetics of modern media are equally rigorous. There is a reason every cool, modern company website scrolls exactly the same way, with parallax full-width images, condensed all-caps typefaces and tasteful accent script. It’s the same one that causes hip restaurants and coffeehouses to all have a certain mix of Brooklyn warehouse and barnwood and hipsters to wear selvedge cuffs, horn rims and work boots.
This reason is called belonging. We recognize visual cues. They make us feel, “Oh, more people like me. Safety here.” There are really very few originals in this world. Almost always, they are loners, fringers, misfits. We celebrate them in ads and pay lip service, but we rarely want to be them. It takes a whole lotta I-don’t-give-a-shit to really, really look and act differently, because people are naturally uncomfortable around genuine originality. We are social animals. We want to survive.
This is where my faux-lib MILFs in de back say, “See? Judge-y!” They argue, rightly, that people should be open minded and not carry around preconceived notions about kids in ripped denim or businessmen wearing the equivalent of rodeo clown suits. That may be true, in some Universe far, far away, but I ask you this: suppose you have a flat tire at 11:00 at night and you notice three kids in hoodies following you down a dark street. Will your pace quicken? Be honest. If, on a second glance, you notice the kids are three blonde female girls with Greek sweatshirts on, will your shoulders relax? Appearances communicate, whether they ought to or not.
The lizard part of our brain is always on. The only way to overcome it is to mingle. That is the best argument for mandated, enforced diversity, which I support anytime and everywhere. No one should glance twice at a man in drag outside of Church Street. Women should be able to code and run companies without having to dress like Marissa Mayer (bless her heart, she looks like she shops at Talbots). Ambisexuals should be able to enlist and shoot guns in combat. Black guys should get elected President…and kids at school should not get shackled by dress codes. A great big middle finger to authority types in the principal’s office! Let us tear down those superficial walls and find an enlightened way to reconcile our reptilian fears and prejudices with our need for security in a more tolerant world.
Let’s, but. Let’s learn the rules of our lesser natures so that we can break them, not innocently pretend they don’t exist. My shrink says, “Innocence is evil,” and it took me a long time to see the sense of that. Being willfully unaware of a lion in the herd will get you eaten, and actually choosing to be a different kind of wildebeest comes with a price in loneliness we’d do better to acknowledge than pretend won’t come due.
WE ALL WEAR UNIS
Fact is, you accept a uniform every single day. Me, too. Maybe it’s a suit. If you work with people in suits, showing up in a hoodie just makes it that much harder. You’d better have your shit together. It’s harder to fight injustice when you’re unemployed. Showing up a funeral in a seersucker suit and a yellow shirt makes you a disrespectful doodoohead, unless it’s a drunken wake. Perhaps your uniform is jeans and a t-shirt. I work in the creative class, where showing up in a suit would make everyone wonder what the hell is up. I’m also old, so I have to wear casually hip clothes, expensive ones that look randomly put-together or my day slows down ever so slightly. I don’t need the handicap. My shrink again: “People our age have to wear more expensive sunglasses, or they won’t respect us.” It’s that, or face that everything I want to get done in concert with other human beings will have to go through the “did he just wear that yellow shirt to a funeral?” filter. I’d love to put on a tux shirt and pink cowboy boots for a business meeting, but it’d be just another thing. I’ll just wear something wrinkled and Italian and try to get some shit done.
Rather than fight needlessly, let us celebrate the dress codes of the world. And if even we need not rejoice in our own inner judge-y-ness, let us at least acknowledge it. There are rules which define proper attire, and consequences (both good and bad) for flaunting them. Instead of sniggering meanly about a fat girl in too tight a dress (“Bless her heart”) or an old guy in sneakers and a hoodie (“Dude is trying wayyyyy too hard”), let’s be clear and know when to wear the right things, except when we don’t. Then let us know and feel confident, proud emperors and empresses, naked beneath our velvet folds, letting our freak flags fly. Let them wonder if the carpet matches the drapes, or if we motherfuckers is just crazy.