Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dress Code

Barry Sanders taught me what a Full Cleveland was. He was the toastmaster at my old law firm’s annual self-congratulatory dinners in the 1970s, back when all the lawyers and spouses fit into one banquet room. A Full Cleveland was a burgundy leisure suit (remember those?) worn with white shoes and a white patent-leather belt. A Full Dayton was the same thing, but in blue.

Getting in step with the crowd
(photo courtesy of Daniel Hartwig)
We all chuckled smugly as Barry, a bit of a dandy himself, worked the crowd with sartorial slights that implicitly linked self worth to conventional good taste. The unspoken truth behind the joke, the whiff of xenophobia, was that the firm was growing so fast in those days that it was losing its clubby homogeneity. Next year there might even be someone in the audience from Cleveland or Dayton.

Humans are not the only species that is self aware, but I’m pretty sure we’re way ahead of dolphins in narcissism and neuroticism. When we're not gazing at our reflections in the pool, what is it we are obsessed with? What others think of us. Am I as wonderful as I think? Really? You too.

Pulled by cultural gravity, we are attracted to like bodies of behavior and thought. Once wrapped in a cocoon of comfortable uniformity, there can be little need to think outside the dress code.

And what then? Are we individuals, or building blocks for some edifice or another: a business, a religion, the minutemen of Arizona, an eco-terror cell?

Aware of the power of peer influence, we warn our children to be careful who they hang with. Perhaps that is a warning we should give ourselves as well. It can be pretty cozy in our self-selected tribes, among all those coordinated suits and ties or matching t-shirts and hoodies. Sometimes it’s worth wearing something that isn’t part of the uniform, just to see how others react. Or to see how their reaction makes us feel about who we are.