I’ve often been known to overdress. I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, and one of the hosts made fun of me for wearing a cardigan and a button-down shirt to such a casual event. He was wearing a pair of old jeans and a Carhartt T-shirt. Evidently, here was a guy who didn’t give much thought to the meaning of his clothes—even though, to the interested listener, they had plenty to say. That’s the thing about clothes: they speak for you, even if you're not paying attention. (To my mind, the way of dressing that carries the least expressive information about a person is the one that is most predicated on quantitative rather than qualitative concerns: buying the cheapest, most practical, most durable clothing one can find at mass-market or discount retailers, and wearing everything until it falls apart, regardless of changes in fashion.) But his comment got me thinking about why I wore what I wore to that party, and just generally about why I dress the way that I do. And I realized that it was, in part, a response to the way that other people dress.

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that when people put effort into their appearance, it demonstrates respect for the people around them. But some people put effort into cultivating an appearance that is calculated to shock or affront others. Then they’re sending a different message altogether. The message that I personally get is, “Not only do I not care what you think of me, but I’ve taken the trouble to make sure you can tell that I don’t. In fact, I reject you, your values, and everything you stand for.” In other words, if no effort is a shrug, this kind of effort is a middle finger. I’m actually insulted by it.

Now, much as I’m socially liberal and unconventional in some ways, in other ways, I’m quite conservative. One of those ways is in matters of etiquette and protocol. I don’t value tradition for tradition’s sake, but in a lot of cases, I’ve made as reasoned and objective an evaluation as I can, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the traditional way is the preferable way—primarily because, at least as far as social conduct is concerned, the traditional way is the one that shows the most respect for other people and is most likely to preserve civility and courtesy in the public sphere.

So this is a significant part of why I dress the way I do: as a reaction against counterculture. Just look at me: I’m an upper-middle-class heterosexual white male, university-educated, a lawyer. I might be too young to be The Man, but I probably qualify as The Man: The Next Generation. And when I see people dressing in a way that I interpret as a rejection of tradition, I take it as a rejection of the values of civility and courtesy in general. So I dress conservatively, neatly, “properly,” in order to communicate my rejection of their rebellion. They wear their pants halfway down their ass? I put on a tie. They get another tattoo? I get another pair of penny loafers. They rip their jeans? I press my khakis. Each salvo of theirs provokes a retaliatory volley of my own, a war of values fought vicariously through personal appearance. On the one side, order; on the other, chaos.

By this time, some of you might be thinking that I’m a hypocrite. Isn’t it one of the central premises of this blog that clothing ought to be used as a mode of self-expression? Doesn’t that preclude judging people’s clothing choices, and saying that one way of dressing is “better” than another? Why are different styles spoken of as being opposed to one another? Shouldn’t they be allowed to coexist?

But what I’m talking about here is how I conceive of my identity as being bound up with certain social mores, and how I perceive others’ identities (as expressed through their clothing) as being in opposition to (and therefore threatening towards) those mores—and by extension, my own identity. In other words, I’m not saying that these people shouldn’t be free to communicate through what they wear; I just disagree with what they’re saying. The right to express is not debatable, but the merit of the content of that expression certainly is.

Yes, I am making a judgment. Do you disagree? Leave a comment, and let the debate begin.


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