How Clothes (Un)Make the (Wo)Man

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I read a wonderful piece this morning in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the ways in which some black academics use fashionable clothing to signal identity. This academic fine dressing is described as part of the black dandy movement, the historic wearing of highly visible, fashionable clothing in the black community. Scholar Monica L. Miller has called this process  “stylin’ out”—using dress to challenge or problematize  traditional expectations of race, gender, and sexuality. This close engagement with fashion among some black people was not always positive, nor was it historically by choice.  As Professor Miller describes in her book Slaves to Fashion, many of the original black dandies were eighteenth century “luxury slaves” who dressed to signal their occupations. These were carefully educated, well-dressed young African ancestored enslaved men who served as visible embodiments of the wealth of their white owners. The oppressive nature of such dressing was altered when black men began to adopt elite, often highly exaggerated modes of dress by their own choice and for their own self-expression. Fancy and/or fanciful dress  allowed a move away from representing the meaning of the empowered to producing meaning among the disempowered.  As I wrote in an article in the NYU Review of Law and Social Changesome black arrayment in finery was far more than a material practice of mimicking the socially elite.  Rather, black adornment often involved an explicitly metaphoric practice meant as social critique and intended to tear down social norms, eliminate boundaries and invert established hierarchies.

Some of the black academics interviewed in the Chronicle article noted how highly stylized dress often gave them a sense of pride, a sense of belonging and a sense of command and mastery when leading students and working with faculty colleagues. Clothes, for these academics, make the (wo)man. Undoubtedly, clothing is a part of how property in self, or personhood, is formed. Erving Goffman noted in his essay “Characteristics of Total Institutions” that the poorly fitting, poor quality clothing that is often compulsory wear for persons in “total institutions” such as mental institutions is an  important mechanism for diminishing inmate self-worth.

I am reminded of an incident that occurred many years ago when I was a law student interviewing for a summer job at a large, prestigious law firm, the most prestigious of the firms that interviewed me. Part of the elaborate call-back process involved going to lunch in an upscale restaurant with two of the firm’s partners. I had dressed as well as I could for an impoverished law student: I wore an attractive, reasonably well-fitting discount store suit.  Under the suit I wore a matching blouse that gave a nice appearance under the suit but was decidedly tattered everywhere except the part that was visible under the suit.  It was a very hot day, and after a few minutes in the restaurant, the partners removed their jackets.  They invited me to remove my jacket as well. Knowing the ragged condition of my blouse, I declined. I dripped with sweat as the lunch progressed, and they once again strongly encouraged me to remove the jacket. I again demurred.

I did not get that job.  I am sure that it was partly because I did not seem to understand that refusing their invitation to informality in dress meant that I did not understand social norms.  The partners likely exercised what has been described as “enclothed cognition” wherein they ascribed certain attributes and beliefs to what I was wearing.  It did not help that I was a young black woman faced with two middle-aged white men who likely had few interactions with people like me.  Thus, I was doubly clothed in the black skin that lay under my clothes.  Enclothed cognition can be a two-way street–others make assumptions about us based on our clothing, and at the same time our self-concept is shaped by our clothing. In that law firm luncheon, I was being closely evaluated for “fit” into firm culture, and I failed the test.  Only later did it occur to me that the decision to undress can be as crucial as the decision to dress. The regulation of both dress and undress is frequently of legal and even constitutional import. This has been discussed by scholar Ruthann Robson in her book Dressing Constitutionally. The legal import of dress or undress often raises especially thorny gender issues. Just ask some Muslim  women who have been assailed for their decisions to cover their bodies more than some other women. But it is the sub-legal social regulation of being clothed and of deshabille that can be especially damaging for women.

I shared the story of my failed interview lunch with my Critical Race Theory students yesterday because yesterday, on my first day of class, it was very warm in the seminar room.  Though I had tried to lower the thermostat, the room continued to swelter as the minutes passed. When I finally concluded that I would have to remove my jacket, I self-consciously looked down to check that my blouse was not torn, though I knew that it was not.  I told the story in a light-hearted manner, but my chagrin at having worn that ragged blouse, all those years ago, is unending.  That seemingly small matter unmade me professionally in some ways, and I have been continually engaged in the re-making ever sense.

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