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Opinions on Bruce Boyer's article "Dressed Up" - thoughtfulness, thoughtlessness, class, etc...

oulipien

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(Editor's note: here's a link to Bruce Boyer's article in question for the background to this discussion.)

I'm so annoyed at Simon Crompton for first having conned me into reading the most recent iteration of the argument that wearing suits is good for society (in an exceptionally confused and incoherent form) in (of all places) First Things, and then for apparently rending me incapable of leaving my astonishingly ambitious, eloquent and well reasoned comments about it on his blog.
 
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FrankCowperwood

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Is it that suits themselves are somehow good for us or that uniformity of dress is? A suit as we'd think of it now seems like an awfully ephemeral construct to be the bedrock of civil society.

The NMWA blog just hosted some musings on this topic too. I think I can say they were skeptical of the idea that a suit is ever terribly uniform.
 

oulipien

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Well, it's hard to say exactly what the argument is, because it's all over the place; it starts off with a cod-Durkheimian invocation of the "occasion" as something set apart from normal life which is marked (this is not cod-Durkheimian and is putting a big ol' thumb on the scale) by special attention to appearance and dress, among other things.

Something that starts that way has a much better chance of proceeding as a successful defense of the International Mr. Leather competition (whose contestants the NY Times just described as looking like "votaries in the church of Tom of Finland") than of proceeding as a successful defense of formal attire for business, which is the definitional opposite of occasions.

It also simultaneously states that in the good ol' days you could tell at a glance who the most important person in the room was by the opulence of his clothes and that the great thing about formal wear is that everyone can participate in occasions (by putting on formal wear? or something?).

It would have been more intellectually honest to just have stated a preference for certain sorts of clothes.
 

dieworkwear

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I've been meaning to write something in response to that Boyer piece (link here for those who haven't read it). I really like Boyer's work, and still liked that piece, but think there are big things at play which make this not just about clothes.

Some quick thoughts:

1. Casualization of Dress. Anyone who complains about how dress norms have gotten more causal (usually with regard to the death of the suit) needs to connect it further back. Men's dress codes have gotten more causal since the death of the frock coat. Yes, we're more casual today, but the Duke of Windsor was chastised for wearing cuffs on city suits (a casual detail). Socialist MPs wore leisure suits (what we think of today as the business suit) to work, which caused an uproar. People have been dressing down for over a hundred years.

2. Politics, Philosophy, and Dress. The breaking down of dress norms isn't just about how men are dressing more casual though. It's about two things.

Democracy and Dress. One, there's been a long trajectory, reaching back to 18th century Europe, where democratic societies exalt the lowest in society, rather than the highest. So, the industrial worker and the cowboy, rather than kings and artistocrats. And with that, you have people who essentially slowly dress like the "lower" classes -- jeans, chambray shirts, motorcycle jackets, etc. Again, the Socialist MP wore a leisure suit to identify with the working class; it was a political statement. This, in part, isn't just about ethos, but about how democracy needs to function. Even before Victorian England, Brits would criticize royals for having overly showy forms of dress (hence why you get this old Boston Brahmin/ Anglo American ethos of being discrete. Lots of things to into that, but one of them was the literal chopping off of heads when European royals got too ostentatious with their wealth).

There's a natural force that connects the causalization of dress with the spread and filling out of liberal democracy. It's hard to imagine a society where people dressed like they did in the early 20th century, but still have the widespread, liberal democratic norms we do today.

I'd also point out, many of those old, mid-20th century dress codes were about exclusion and class snobbery. People forget how strict dress norms were in the past. You could be sent home for wearing a blue shirt instead of white to work. And for social situations, those "not in the know" where excluded -- often those lines of exclusion fell along economic class lines. Today, there are still dress norms, and a bit of social exclusion for those who break those norms, but they're not nearly as strict. And thank God, cause if you want a real egalitarian, democratic society, those things are awful.

Political Theory and Dress. There's also the old liberalism vs. communtarian debate, which has been a tension forever. Librealism meaning the 18th century European philosophy; not Obama or whatever. The idea that there exists an individual outside of society - a true self, which should be protected from the masses. Liberalism has given us civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, etc. Lots of good things come out of the idea that individuals should be protected from the tyranny of the masses.

Communitarian critiques, however, say that the individual needs a group to exist, and thus the interest of communities should sometimes take precedent. You see this tension all the time. If a Christian community (or nation) views sexuality one way, what do we do about minority groups who don't follow those norms?

Over time, American society has gotten more and more liberal. But there's a good critique here from communitarians that even liberals need communitarian dynamics in order to achieve liberal goals. Take voting, for example, which draws on one's sense of nationhood. Or take cultural norms - not smoking near doorways. It's an impossible rule to police unless you have a police state, because people can finish their cigarette before the police arrive. So, unless you want a policeman on every street corner, you need cultural norms to regular behavior. Social shaming, in other words, which is a communitarian "weapon."

Dress follows a lot of that. What Bruce is pointing out is that, in the philosophical sense, clothes have become more liberal. And he would like more communitarianism. More norms. More social codes. More sense of community. And for him, that leads to more civility (I agree with him that the breakdown of civility, in part, has to do with liberalism).

Still, that sense of individuality, freedom to play with identity, and break down of social norms has also lead to a lot of stuff we like. As mentioned, civil rights, gay rights, etc. Bruce writes about how men nowadays can dress like cowboys and walk down Fifth Avenue -- not because they're cowboys, but because they feel like being one for the day. And it's true, fashion has become a way to play with social identity -- one maybe disconnected from our "real" identities -- but however we feel about that, it's hard to separate it out from greater forces that allow people to search for new roles, despite whatever they're born into. Women can work; African Americans can be CEOs; men can be gay, etc. All things most people believe in.

But it's true that, as individual freedom goes up, group identity by definition goes down. And maybe with that, not only civility, but also things liberals want (civil service, political participation, etc). I would probably feel closer to my neighbors if we all dressed the same.

3. Behavior and Dress. Fundamentally, I don't think there's little connection between clothes and "good" behavior (outside of feeling connected to a group). Fela Kuti had that song "Gentleman," which playfully mocked that tensions between the English norm of dressing and behaving like a gentleman, while at the same time colonizing half the world. Yes, people today generally behave better when they're in suits, but they also tend to be at weddings and job interviews, where you have to be. If you take enthusiasts who wear suits, by almost any measure, the sections of the internet dedicated to suits and sport coats tend to be more cantankerous, rude, and mean spirited than the general fashion community. Outside of formal occasions and work, where people are forced to wear suits, if you had to draw a line in any direction, it seems like putting on tailored clothing makes you a dick.

Sorry for the bullet pointing above/ Powerpoint presentation. But I've been meaning to write something for a blog in response to Boyer's article, which I think is worth reading (dude is still the best suit and sport coats writer around), and those things have been swimming in my head.
 
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FrankCowperwood

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I wonder how more communitarianism works when demographics are shifting and far from homogenous. Which communitarian rules do we abide by? Is it a suit as defined by Anglo-Protestant communitarianism or a suit as defined by another historically suit wearing community? Which is to say how do we get past reducig this to "people should dress more like me."

Also, I will point out that Fela Kuti was fond of giving filmed interviews wearing only satin briefs. He certainly lived as he preached.
 

dieworkwear

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I wonder how more communitarianism works when demographics are shifting and far from homogenous. Which communitarian rules do we abide by? Is it a suit as defined by Anglo-Protestant communitarianism or a suit as defined by another historically suit wearing community? Which is to say how do we get past reducig this to "people should dress more like me."

Also, I will point out that Fela Kuti was fond of giving filmed interviews wearing only satin briefs. He certainly lived as he preached.
Multi-cultural liberal democracies are kind of a new thing, so it's hard to pull historical examples. That said, Israel is an example of where you can get people of different ethnicities to come together under the banner of one broader identity (being Jewish). As a whole, the level of diversity isn't too different from the US, even if you exclude non-Jewish Arabs. (Realize Jewish here is a difficult thing to pinpoint as it's half about ethnicity and half about religion, but hopefully you get my point. To the degree other ethnicities can be identified, as secondary to being Jewish, they're given up in Israel for a broader identity, which there ties into nationhood).

Or, you can get the creation of a new national identity, such as the formation of the "Han" identity in China.

It's probably easier to have a national identity if you have less diversity though. The main obstacle to national identity in the US doesn't seem to be so much the level of demographic diversity so much as it is about liberalism. We really, really value individualism. So, to the degree group identity exists, they're fractured, small, and often personally chosen (rather than forced upon us).
 

YoungM

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I find this whole discussion super interesting, but have little of use to add, as I still need to read the original Boyer article.

However, I've been watching the BBC mini-series adaptation of one of my favorite series of books - A Dance to The Music of Time - and it is really driving home just how casual my life, and the life of everyone I know is compared to the era (and culture) the books are concerned with. Kids at Eton wear full black-tie seemingly everywhere. Young men who show up at parties wearing simple suits look out of place or rakish. People own a LOT of collars. Obviously, all of this is within a very specific social milieu of immense privilege, but it's still striking.
 

FrankCowperwood

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I find this whole discussion super interesting, but have little of use to add, as I still need to read the original Boyer article.

However, I've been watching the BBC mini-series adaptation of one of my favorite series of books - A Dance to The Music of Time - and it is really driving home just how casual my life, and the life of everyone I know is compared to the era (and culture) the books are concerned with. Kids at Eton wear full black-tie seemingly everywhere. Young men who show up at parties wearing simple suits look out of place or rakish. People own a LOT of collars. Obviously, all of this is within a very specific social milieu of immense privilege, but it's still striking.
Would like to see the series. I'm not yet up to WWII in the books. Haven't picked them up in a while but may now. They are striking for how intimate they feel and for Powell's interest in the visual arts, painting in particular (and so I guess the title of the cycle). For a writer he is very attuned to the visual. In contrast say to using music as the cultural reference point.
 

FrankCowperwood

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I may not know enough about Boyer, but his article seems like it would best be read sitting in a club chair by a fire someone else made drinking something brown and muttering to oneself. Sun King. Really knew how to do things right. Gold and ermine. People knew who was king then.
 

LA Guy

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I may not know enough about Boyer, but his article seems like it would best be read sitting in a club chair by a fire someone else made drinking something brown and muttering to oneself. Sun King. Really knew how to do things right. Gold and ermine. People knew who was king then.
I've met Bruce a few times, and am actually really like his book "Rebel Style". He was always very friendly and accommodating. I think that sometimes people's thoughts get away from their better sense.
 

oulipien

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Man, if dieworkwear had to apologize for his long post, I'm really in trouble for this one.

Dress follows a lot of that. What Bruce is pointing out is that, in the philosophical sense, clothes have become more liberal. And he would like more communitarianism. More norms. More social codes. More sense of community. And for him, that leads to more civility (I agree with him that the breakdown of civility, in part, has to do with liberalism).
He doesn't want more norms or more social codes or more sense of community, though. He wants the right norms/sense of community/whatever. I mean: maybe all the people at a wedding in polo shirts are in fact acting according to the norms of their communities! (Maybe their norms mandate such dress; maybe their norms tell them to ignore matters of dress.) Boyer presumes to be able to tell that, because they aren't wearing what he considers to be the properly formal clothes for the occasion, they aren't treating the occasion with due seriousness, or even treating it as an occasion—this is risible. (And really, most of the points he makes he makes in the form of rhetorical questions!)

The one good argument he almost makes—but he doesn't even make it—is that having a single set of norms can be egalitarian because, in theory, if there's a set of knowable rules, you can learn the rules no matter your starting point. ('Course there are tons of devilish details: being able to know the rules doesn't mean you'll be able to put them into practice; even if you're wearing a suit you could still be clearly wearing, you know, a cheap suit; even if you're wearing a nice suit you could still fail any of a number of other shibboleths, including hard-to-remedy ones such as skin color, ones more capable of remedy such as kinky hair, and even easier ones to remedy such as accent—but at this point the seams (ho ho ho) really ought to be showing: wouldn't it be more egalitarian to not care about accent, hair, or skin color? Why is dress so important?)

Dieworkwear's reconstruction above is an act of exceptional generosity: I really meant it when I said I found it incoherent. It's hard to start off talking about a sense of occasion, also talk about general habits of dress which by definition aren't occasional, and talk about attending to clothes while deriding a hypothetical wearer of cowboy boots in Midtown (someone doing that has probably put some thought into his dress!). It is a mistake to conflate the distinction between public and private personas (and if he thinks "we" only have one, private, persona that's gone public, he's crazy; what in the world are Facebook, Instagram, etc., if not the apotheosis of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life?) and the distinction between the ritual/occasional and the mundane, which he manages to do right out the gate. On the ritual/occasional tip, I also meant the reference to the International Mr. Leather competition seriously. And we can add SantaCon and Burning Man to the list of plainly ritual/occasional affairs in his sense that, nevertheless, he probably doesn't really have in mind, because I think he probably is using that conceptual apparatus to make an entirely different point, which is basically that he's nostalgic for explicit stratification. Not that he'd phrase it that way. We definitely cannot add anything related to IBM's dress code. That is just a straight-up conceptual mess.

Here's why I think he's nostalgic for stratification. Dig this (can I use the quote feature to quote something that isn't a post here? I'll just use triple-quotes):

"""
… dress underwent another great change; call it the “Tailored Renunciation” or the “Casual Revolution.” Underlying it is not the triumph of one class but rather the loss among all classes of a sense of occasion. By “occasion” I mean an event out of the ordinary, a function other than our daily lives, an experience for which we take special care and preparation, at which we act and speak and comport ourselves differently—events which could be called ritualistic in matters of propriety and appearance. There used to be many of these events, social rituals that filled our non-working lives: weddings and funerals, going to church, restaurants, parties, and theaters. Meeting important people of various stripes, people who had greater social standing than we did, was an occasion for our parents and grandparents to dress up, and that included going to the doctor’s office when you were sick, because the doctor was thought to be an important person worthy and deserving of that outward sign of respect.
"""

My mom as an undergrad in the 60s used to wear white gloves to go shopping with her friends in San Francisco. And yet one wonders: don't people continue to go shopping? Don't they still go to weddings and funerals, church (I suppose I don't know the story about church attendance but whatever), parties, and theaters? And wait a minute—what does that have to do with meeting important people and showing them deference? There seem to be a lot of things going on here: (a) a claim that people no longer access to the Durkheimian sacred, only the Durkheimian profane (it's not even the claim that social life is wanner than it used to be, or that social ties are weaker; it's specifically that there aren't things that take us out of the mundane); (b) an additional suggestion that, also, social life is wanner (it's not clear, though, because the paragraph is consistent with there being tons of social occasions, but divested of their former import—incidentally, it's a bit dicey conceptually to claim that our non-working lives used to be filled with events out of the ordinary); (c) a claim that "meeting important people" took us out of our daily lives and goldurnit we tried to look our best for them.

No argument is offered for the truth of (a) and its only purported connection to clothes is a subsequent rhetorical question that boils down to "it's clothes, innit?". (Precisely, what he asks is "Can an event be an occasion if there’s no attempt to outwardly manifest it?", and he evidently means "in clothing", because otherwise the question isn't even relevant. I kind of want to say … yes? Side note on this, and the reference to the theater: I just came from two screenings at a silent film festival, a lot of whose attendees were attired in period dress. It was certainly an occasion for them! On the other hand, a friend of a friend who was also there spoke disdainfully of them as "nitrate furries" [if you take nothing else from this post, take that]; he isn't fond of the way they engage with silent movies. He was clothed completely unremarkably. And y'know what? It was also an occasion for him, one for which he had traveled 2,000 miles, even. And yet you'd never know it by his clothes!) (c) makes no real sense when combined with (a); dressing up to meet your doctor or some social better is a transaction firmly within your daily life; it's negotium. (b) may well be true! (a) may well be true, too, though I'd note that Thanksgiving rolls around every year same as always, and so does Yom Kippur (and I never dress differently for them), and so does New Year's Eve (and I do dress differently for that). But it's the important people stuff that gets played on more and more toward the end:

"""
… today the social signals clothes send seem more numerous, more capricious, more interchangeable, more fluid and permeable, more complicated and ambiguous. We choose the clothing we wear not for modesty or the differentiation of the sexes, nor for protection from the elements, nor to signal our place in the social structure, …

Clothes have always provided the most obvious indication of both dignity and definition. There was no question in anyone’s mind when Louis XIV walked into the room who was king. His yards of ermine and gold cloth made it easy. But today we see a man walking in midtown Manhattan wearing a pair of jeans, denim shirt and jacket, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots and have no idea what he may be. …

It is no accident that the casual ethic is embodied in this solitary figure of freedom. The sense of occasion he opposes was always communal—accessible at once to low and high.
"""

Maybe among the First Things crowd it's more immediately appealing to lament a decline in modesty or sex differentiation, and maybe in San Diego it makes sense to maintain that people don't wear clothes for protection from the elements. But this seems like a straight-up lament that you can no longer tell which hoodie-clad nerd is an important rich capitalist and which is just a dude in a hoodie. Which is rather anti-egalitarian, and goes directly against the argument I delineated above. He doesn't want shared norms, he wants the Great Chain of Being, and he wants the visible sign of that invisible order to be clothing. (Note the bizarre attempt to bring things back to a sense of occasion at the end—if this makes any sense whatsoever, I can't find it. It's a completely unargued-for assertion that his hypothetical cowboy is opposed to a sense of occasion, joined to a claim about commonality and accessibility that comes right after a paean to signals showing who does and who doesn't belong to what stratum—strata which pertain, moreover, to daily life, and not to occasions in his sense at all!)
 

venividivicibj

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TLDR me bro... cmon
 

FrankCowperwood

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he's nostalgic for explicit stratification.
That's well put.

I really noticed this nostalgia throughout the piece. And what I found unsettling is the assertion in his conclusion that I think says this explicit stratification based on dressing up is somehow an essential part of "a society hospitable to the down and out."

This is, at best, some sort of backward looking idea of noblesse oblige.
 

oulipien

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You know it occurred to me that I was overblowing the "occasion" stuff but I think it's still badly argued; in San Francisco going to the opera is not an occasion one dresses up for anymore but if that's bad (is that bad?) it isn't because you can't tell at a glance who's socially superior and who's socially inferior (which are odious concepts anyway), and you can't tell from the fact that someone isn't wearing traditionally formal stuff that something isn't an occasion worth dressing up for for them—clubbing is an "occasion" for which people dress specially, after all, and maybe Cowboy Boots dude was going to a gathering of People Into That Shit or something.
 

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