Sunday, July 14, 2013

Snake Oil

Are dress codes a symbol of social health? Did we move from respect for others to loving only ourselves? Those are questions that I consider whenever I think about how we dress and what that means.

I’m not thinking about teens and their age-old need to be identified with peers and not stand out in their own crowd, while at the same time separating themselves both from their juniors ("Look, I’m not a baby anymore!") and their seniors ("Look, I’m ME!"). That’s a natural process that certainly isn’t new. No, what I’m thinking about has to do with things like hats and gloves and the difference between work clothes and "Sunday best."

When I was growing up, and where I did that, no boy wore a hat in the house more than once. In the presence of ladies (never "girls" or "women") a hat had an almost mechanical feature that lifted it off the head of the wearer if one chanced to meet a lady outside, and flew either to a hat rack or to the owner’s side when inside. Gentlemen wore hats outside, but never inside for any reason beyond some relationship to work, such as house-painting. There are even those of us who remember mechanics wearing dress shirts and ties under their coveralls when diagnosing a poor-running car. Were those the good old days?

And what about today? The ubiquitous "gimmie" baseball cap so beloved of advertisers already had a place in my list of things I could do without, and if you have read the essays in my book, Mixed Freight, you will already know how I feel about those [Hats Off!, Page 29]. But since I wrote that essay ten or so years ago, there has been another shift in how we dress.

Before I get into that, let me add a "full disclosure" caveat: I live in a very rural part of America, and seldom visit major cities. Where once I didn’t even own a pair of jeans, I now find them to be my first choice when getting dressed (second, really, because I start my day in hiking shorts most every morning year-round.) But I digress. I seldom wear a suit and tie, and I guess I’m old enough to get away with wearing "play clothes" if I want to. But again, I digress.

What I’m really having a hard time with is politicians and corporate CEOs, the supreme white-collar workers, wearing $5,000 suits, with probably $100 white dress shirts, and no tie. I find that insulting. Just who do these hot shots think they are kidding? A guy in a suit and dress shirt and no tie on the factory floor? You know he’s management from the soles of his handmade loafers to the top of his $100 haircut (or ten-times more expensive hair piece). And how about state visits? Wandering around some politician’s ranch, or sitting in a gilded audience room in a stately office, surrounded by reporters and translators, fashionable dark suits and tie-less white wing collars open at the neck: what does that say about those guys? Are they trying to make us think they are really working? Have you ever seen a farm hand mucking out a barn in a coat and tie?

If you believe they’re just one of the boys, I’ve got a nice bottle of snake oil with your name on it.

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