Monday, August 4, 2014

On The Self-Satisfaction Of The Casually Dressed

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at The Kramer Is Now we have a belief -- not a confidently held belief, not a conviction, but still, a belief -- that whatever they might say to the contrary, the vast majority of people care a whole heck-of-a-lot about their clothing and appearance.

The Accidental Philosopher is an uninteresting case. I've always cared a lot about my appearance and I've never been shy to say so. I want to wear just the right sort of thing; I want my hair just so; I love a beautiful pair of shoes. I'm frustrated when my reality fails to measure up to my ideal, which it almost always does. Many of my earliest memories are of clothes: the blue and green dress I loved so much that after I outgrew it I wore it as a shirt; the crazy '70s backless one-piece jumpsuit; the first pair of high-heel sandals, purchased years after I started begging for them.

A lot of people are with me on that. But this post isn't about us. This post is about those other people. In particular, it's about those people who think, and often feel compelled to point out, with a hint of self-satisfaction, that they're the kind of people who really just don't care what they put on, as long as it's comfortable, warm, easy to clean. This post is about how we cannot cede to these people the moral high ground they think they're standing on.

A couple of years ago a guy wrote in -- I think it was to The Chronicle of Higher Education -- explaining exultantly that he just couldn't understand all this talk about clothing in academia and what to wear to teach class, because he just didn't care about clothes, in fact, he boasted, he just got up and put on whatever his wife bought for him and that was that. Voilà! Man, clothed!

In the comments a lot of people were already like, WTF?, pointing out that if a woman said that about husband it would be weird all around. But I found myself thinking more directly, "There is no way that is true."

Imagine if the wife had set out comfortable, warm, easy to clean pants that just happened to have giant red, white, and blue stars on them. Imagine if what she set out was made of skin-tight latex. Imagine if she set out a shirt that was comfortable, warm, and easy to clean, but just happened to have a visual depiction of the man's naked chest sewn on to the front. Do you think he'd just put these clothes on, go to campus? There's no way. I think he'd freak the fuck out.

Years ago when I was young I dated a guy who liked to say he didn't care about clothes. He was a jeans-and-T-shirt type. My own clothing interests he seemed to classify under the category of "Yeah, you never know what interests women are going to have." Any role my clothing might have played in his being sexually attracted to me was an issue swept under the rug and never discussed.

Then one day I borrowed someone's sensible and ugly winter coat. And gee -- it turned out this coat wasn't very attractive -- a fact that this guy eventually told me, going on to suggest, with an attempt at tact, that I wear something else. Hmmm. A little later someone offered the two of us a bunch of quality hand-me-downs. We had very little money and always needed stuff, so anyone who didn't care about their appearance would have said "yes" immediately. But I suspected this guy would not like these clothes. They weren't the right cut of denim. They weren't the right kind of shirt. There were brands suggesting class issues he didn't want to identify with. And I was right: he turned down the offer.

I don't blame him -- I wouldn't have wanted to wear them either. But it shows: in this case, "not caring about clothes" was really more about projecting a certain image of not caring about clothes.

And I think that is often true. Or, perhaps we can say more charitably, that it's not about projecting "I don't care" but rather about projecting an image identifying with a certain set of people -- people who aren't bankers, who don't read GQ, who've never shopped for a tie in their lives. I think this is probably right. And I think most people who "don't care about clothes" are hoping to project an image identifying themselves with a particular set of values, or to reject pretension in favor of simplicity or anti-elitism. Everyone can wear jeans and a T-shirt, you might say, so if we all wear jeans and T-shirts, we can all be the same.

That's fine. Admirable goal. But let's not get confused. It doesn't mean these people don't care about what they wear. They care a ton. They just care in a particular way. So right away, just forget that whole self-satisfaction that is supposed to be based on being Above All Of That. Nobody's above anything here.

And once we're clear that we're all in the same boat about caring, and it's just some people care about X and others care about Y, I think the hope that T-shirts and jeans are somehow inherently more closely associated with progressive values than other clothes isn't quite sustainable.

Look at it this way. For obvious reasons, women can't just opt into the whole "I just wear T-shirts and jeans." Women face relentless bizarre pressures to triangulate sexy-but-not-too-sexy-and-don't-be-frumpy norms. Unless she happens to be a hottie, a woman who throws on comfortable jeans and a T-shirt isn't going to command respect in the workplace and she isn't going to be found attractive by the men she's hoping to date. So it's never so simple.

Other people can't opt in either. Because of racism, black people have to craft their self-presentation just in the service of simple aims like catching taxis and not being harassed in stores.

Still other people, for all kinds of reasons, aren't going to be comfortable in the standard-issue-anti-elitist uniform. Maybe they grew up wearing something else, and jeans feel alien and strange.

So there's at least one sense in which that particular uniform rests on certain assumptions about conformity, and even on some white-guy-privilege.

Furthermore, when people wear all different kinds of clothing, and there's less pressure toward conformity, it's easier to be different: more people can feel like they belong, because belonging doesn't mean dressing the same.

If that's true, then the world needs the backless jumpsuit, pink boots, wearing some crazy stuff people.

So next time you see someone in a crazy outfit, don't think "I don't care about what I wear." Think, "Maybe it's time to buy some pants with giant stars on them." Dress all in blue. Or something. Fly your freak flag, knock yourself out, all of that jazz. 


Your local Franchise Glitz Dealer said...

Ah! Clothing is always a projection, and deliberate one, of how we want to be perceived. Those "I really don't care" types are very careful to pick that look. This topic always makes me think of Margaret's speech to Owen in Liquid Sky.

The "I don't care" people always want to say they aren't concerned with superficial things like that, but you have hit it head on, that they are very careful to show that with their attire.

Clothing is a language onto itself, and I don't think that you could find a person who doesn't care about the language they use as much as they might like to present that way.

My thoughts here might be a little disorganized. You would think I would have learned me lesson about trying to write before I have finished my first cup of coffee.

Patricia Marino said...

Liquid Sky! I haven't thought about that movie in such a long time. Certainly full of people not afraid to fly their freak flags etc. etc...

Daniel said...

The clothing that you suggested the wife leave out for her husband who "doesn't really care" made me laugh.

I wonder if the "really don't care" guy is actually a sort of more acceptable kind of uber-masculine. Imagine him responding to an "effeminate" gay guy who asks him where he got his "fabulous" clothes!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! I wonder if you haven't made the truth-conditions for "I don't care" too hard to meet. (And I think this might be a problem, because if almost every utterance of "I don't care" is false, then it becomes useless to utter, since we won't be able to use it to distinguish anything from anything else.)

Here's a line for thought that you may have set the bar too high. Suppose I have dinner plans with a friend, and she says "What do you want to eat?", and I say (completely sincerely) "I don't care." She then replies: "Well, if you really don't care, then let's eat this roadkill here, raw." Now, I could conceivably respond "OK, you're right, I do care," but I think most people would think that actually my friend is intentionally misunderstanding what I meant. And what I meant is (something like) 'I am indifferent between all the reasonable/salient options available to us.' And munching raw roadkill is not a salient dinner option for most folks in my sociolinguistic context.

I am happy to grant that you are 100% right about your ex, and that "I don't care what I wear" actually meant something like "I actively dislike and avoid clothing that is considered high fashion or signals high socioeconomic status." But that's not the only thing "I don't care what I wear" can really mean. I live with someone who describes themselves as not caring what they wear. (I do care, and I can see the difference between us.) And I think what they mean is that they are (pretty close to) indifferent between the various clothing options, so long as each option meets the basic requirements of fitting and not being uncomfortable. It seems analogous to saying "I don't care what we eat for dinner": in both cases, the utterance means that there is a much wider range of acceptable options, than there would be if I did care what I ate or wore.

(I feel like holding that "I don't care what I wear" is almost always false is like holding "This is flat" is always false of any physical object -- since no physical objects are COMPLETELY/ PERFECTLY flat. You can certainly consistently maintain that view (does Unger? I forget), but then it makes the word 'flat' useless for communication.)

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Anonymous,
Thanks for the comment! A few thoughts:

1. The "I don't care" of dining options seems to me not analogous to the "I don't care" of clothing when the latter is used in the particular way I was suggesting it gets used. I was suggesting people use it to signal not so much "I'm flexible, among obvious options" but rather to signal "I'm above caring about things like that." Food strikes me as something most people are happy to admit having tastes and even strong preferences about, not something people feel the need to signal their lack of interest in. The particular "I don't care" I'm addressing is different and comes with a certain commitment beyond flexibility, to indifference, to being above it all. And it's this claim to indifference I'm questioning.

2. Of course it would be an empirical question how many people are using "I don't care" in the way I'm talking about when it comes to clothes. Maybe most people intend the simple flexibility you're alluding to. I don't know.

3. But I'd add that I'm skeptical that the "I don't care" of clothing is true of most people even when interpreted in the lesser sense of "I'm flexible, among obvious options." Even small differences, like clothes that look like they're from the 90s, or pants that are slightly too short and remind you of the ones you wore in school when everyone made fun of you, or really bright colors, seem to me categories that a lot of people would find objectionable. The analog to "Thai, Indian, Italian or Chinese?" would be "Hipster, Cowboy Style, Amish or Levi's?" I think a lot of people who say they don't care about clothes would choose the Levi's every time. Not that that there's anything wrong with that. As I made clear in the post, I think it's a stance with positive motivations, I just think those are more accurately described as caring in a certain way.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I am happy to grant 1 and 2 completely -- I would guess that you are right that your version of "I don't care about clothes" is the more common one.

And on 3, I basically agree with you there too. You are certainly right that there are some limits to what's acceptable even for someone who uses "I don't care" to mean they are more flexible than the average person. Besides the criteria of fitting and comfort that I mentioned earlier, the person I have in mind also does not want to wear something far, far outside the range of clothes considered normal. My only quibble is that 'Amish' seems closer to [insert cuisine that is only very rarely found in North America] than to the popular/salient options of Thai, Indian, Italian, and Chinese that you gave.