There’s this idea that’s floated around since I was a bald-faced lad (I’m now a scraggly-faced boy-man) that the solution to all of societies’ woes is a dress code. Until recently, it focused exclusively on children, but recent attempts to legislate baggy pants in Atlanta and other states show that we continue to look for a simple solution for a “symptom” as opposed to the problem(s).
The idea that “the clothes make the man” is probably best illustrated by the Looney Tunes. In a particular cartoon, a hats accidentally fly out of a delivery truck and land on Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. With each hat change, their personality changes: a bridal veil turns Elmer into a blushing bride, while an Army helmet turns Bugs into General Patton.
It’s a great gag, but there are a lot of people who buy into that idea in real life. It ignores the idea that people change costumes to affect the changes they’ve always wanted to make about themselves. A kilt doesn’t make some Scottish, but that person may want to act Scottish, so the image jusitifies doing whatever it is the wearer thinks Scottish people do that is awesome.
So we characterize people based on their clothing because we assume that they interpret their clothes the same way we do. When I wear a kilt, people assume that I’m going to drink, headbutt soccer officials and shag some sheep. In reality, I’m just going to drink, but no more than usual, and I could care less about soccer. I don’t plan to shag any sheep, but who knows where the night will lead? (For the sake of the public and sheep, hopefully not to a farm.)
By replacing the kilt with baggy pants, people assume I’m going to earn a lower GPA, kill whitey and degrade a few women as “hos.” They have no idea that I’m wearing baggy pants because my elephantitis is inflamed again. Instead, they assign the uniform of baggy pants to the thug, that black hip-hop monster that will achieve nothing more than rhyming in rhythm.
What’s their solution? Send me to The Gap for some well-fit khakis, which will not help my swollen testicles. But dressing me up won’t improve my grammar, ethnicity or class (in both senses of the word).
But I’m less threatening in khakis (unless my testicles grow larger from chafing), so the problem can be ignored. I’m not an example of “what’s wrong with America” anymore, but instead look like the people who don’t have said problem. Bill O’Reilly can excitedly compliment me because I didn’t mug or rap at him.
The other basis to the dress code idea is that it will save me some grief because everyone is wearing the same clothes as me; therefore, they can’t decide whether I should be beaten up or not.
As I wore a uniform for three years of Catholic school, allow me to rebut.
People don’t get beaten up for the clothes they wear; they get beaten up because there are assholes who like to beat people up. Assholes will find any reason to kick your ass: your clothes, your stupid face, telling them that you’d like to (lovingly) sodomize their sister, disgraceful taste in wine, poor hygiene, the way you walk, your speech impediment and etc.
In fact, I’ve had offers to rearrange my face my entire life whether I was dressed in a uniform or at the height or most modest standard of fashion. Come to think of it, the only time I haven’t been threatened was when I was naked, but that’s because the guys that would beat me up were too nervous about looking gay by talking to or laying hands on a naked guy.
Even if everyone is dressed the same or–as the proponents call it–appropriately, we always find something to dislike about a person.
In Catholic school, we had to wear predominantly white sneakers, so we made fun of the kid in the dorkiest white shoes. Woe be to the boy who wore Keds or similar nurse-centered attire. We also had a choice between khaki pants or shorts, but, since this was in Hawaii, only losers wore the pants. And, of course, we could still judge a kid by his face, hair, athletic ability, race, nerdish qualities and whether or not he took Communion at Mass. And since we were mostly military brats, there was the inevitable division of officers’ and enlisteds’ kids.
That’s why it is important to not forget the dual-purpose of uniforms: yes, they make everyone more or less the same; but, they also assign rank to that person. This is why we dress prisoners and servants in such a manner–to remind them, and us, of their place. Nobody cares if white CEOs wear relaxed-fit Levis, but it’s an “epidemic” when young people, who frighten us, do. In fact, when guys like Richard Branson do it, they’re “rogues” or “colorful.”
We’re fascinated by simple solutions to life’s complex problems. After 9/11, e-mail messages floated around about General Pershing vanquishing Islam in the Philippines in the early 20th century by burying killed Muslims with pig corpses, which ignores the ongoing clashes with Islam in the Philippines today. Or that by buying everyone in the world a Coke, the world would “stop and chill a while.” Or, my favorite, that by groggily pledging allegiance to a flag every morning, people will become better citizens.
Dress codes follow the same vein of thought. They don’t really solve the bigger problem, nor do they help the person with the problem. Instead, they dress up the person in question so we don’t notice them anymore or are less threatened by them. And the sad part is that it doesn’t work. Ask all the pre-Civil Rights blacks that were lynched in the South despite straightening their hair and wearing ties.