A great achievement of the classes that rule us is making us love our chains. I had this (almost certainly not original) thought reading the estimable Bruce Boyer’s recent essay “Dress Up” on the faith-oriented website First Things, and remembered it again as I struggle to restore one of my chains, my badly worn briefcase bought new 16 years ago from the heavily fetishized English whipmaker Swaine Adeney Brigg.
I can say, with all of the ecumenism worthy of a site like First Things, that Boyer is a mensch, perhaps the most respected English-language men’s clothing writer, and has personally become one of the kindest voices about my own writing and attempts to bring my own book to publication. So “Dress Up” showcases his splendid knowledge of clothing history, enlivened with his usual verve.
“Dress Up”’s thesis is that we have lost a sense of occasion, a socially shared sense of ritual that inspires us as a group to dress better (Freudianly, I just typed “bitter” and then “butter”), and to know how to dress better to appropriately fit the occasion. Casualization of clothing is a false democratization; an old order of codes is destroyed and a new surfeit of variety bedevils us: would-be #steezinistas lose their way, unsure how to coordinate their clothes given all the different colors, styles, and changing fashion seasons. In other words, losing the shared sense of occasion means loss of commonality, community, and “humility,” to be replaced by a society that “gives more leeway to the strong than it does support to the weak.”
Change from a supposed settled and calm order that leads to aimlessness, confusion and indulgence. I can see why this piece was of publishing interest to First Things. Nostalgia for a time of less, or more repressed, questioning is rampant in many religious outlets today.
Clothing is a social tool, a manner of expression. Dress codes, including and especially those that “Dress Up” mentions like entire stadiums wearing suits to ballgames, are a method of enforcing social order. The idea of wearing nicer clothing as a sign of mutual respect is profoundly bourgeois, one of many incentives to the middle class to conform to this sense of order. Others include modesty (the wearing of suits means wearing far more layers than, say, today’s T-shirt) and the ideal of quality, the lie of longevity that convinced me so long ago that my briefcase, my leather lunch pail as Tom Wolfe snarkily and observantly called it, would really be a lifetime quote investment unquote.
I got pumped and dumped, in both the investment and the Trumpian senses of the terms.
Things do not last, things do not make you you. It’s a lesson I had to learn over time. Like, I suspect, most iGents, my favorite superhero as a little kid was Batman, because he always had the right accessory. With his utility belt and quick thinking, he had the response to every occasion. (Today, it’s probably Green Arrow, Batman as a bleeding heart liberal.) His things made him him. I admit his deep and twisted repression also made him a natural identification for us iGents too.
Unfortunately, the nature of capitalist society is the privilege of the strong at the expense of the weak. At best, social support is an afterthought. The creation of a sense of occasion to which we must respond and conform means that the few who are not required to do so enjoy and outwardly signal their power. Power to transgress the norms they have set down, in dress as in other forms of conduct. (That, incidentally, was prep, in all of its worn-down, bizarrely-colored and patterned glory, a reality far from the idealizations of the Internet creeps who idolize it, a set of strange codes to penalize outsiders, strange codes set by an upper-class and upper-middle-class ability to transgress against norms of good taste and restraint that supposedly dictated how everyone dressed 60 years ago.)
I selected my briefcase in conformity with the old norms of taste: tastefully anonymous, unlogoed, made by hand by Englishmen guaranteed to treat most non-Sloaney visitors to their St. James’s shop like utter garbage, unwieldily heavy brass fittings on thick, thick bridle hide leather that not only had that forelock-tugging equestrian heritage but supposedly would last forever.
As usual, Ferry was right. Nothing lasts forever. The lies to manage us, though, are the Same Old Scene. Luxury, as always, is what almost none of us can have. In the rosy-tinted past of First Things, it was casualness, freedom from strictures, suits, codes of professionalism. Today, as Boyer correctly notes, we have been given freedom to be as casual as we wish by our corporate overlords, a false freedom since now what almost none of us can have is peace of mind, personal time, sleep, job and personal security, perhaps even any kind of future – all things those corporate overlords, and their owners, have in various ways taken away through labor-saving devices that make us available around the clock, donations to think tanks to create deregulatory lies, newly charitable contributions to help elect the most venal leaders. It was not a change in clothes that created this environment, even if my reaction against the false freedom of casualness was to dress as I liked – well, if I daresay – and to embrace my chains, like my briefcase.
Welcome the freedom to dress as well as you like, to be individual, rather than as a subject of spoken and unspoken codes of dress. And if you believe in community and shared social support, fight for it on your own terms, rather than ingesting the politically conservative pablum too many mouthpieces of organized religion like to serve up.