I wrote last spring about clothing as a representation of identity. There’s an interesting dialogue going on now about clothing and other status symbols as they relate to class in the United States, begun by the essay “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” by Tressie McMillan-Cottom. Of course, this is not about exploring identity through appearance and presentation, as I was talking about, and much more about what it means to be able to carry off different signals of class and education through appropriate attire, speech patterns, and the like. This is a world in which whether you wear a cotton tank top or a silk shell under your blouse can mean the difference between being hired and being dismissed as not right for the job, regardless of any other qualifications.
This summer Theodora Goss wrote about the Lady Code:
“So dressing, for a woman, is a complicated affair. When you look into your closet in the morning — and even before that, when you buy your clothes in a store or online — you are making a choice about what you want to communicate. You are speaking in a coded language.”
This is, I think, why I am so interested in clothes, because I do see them as a means of communication. I didn’t learn the lady code or any of this sort of communication at home; my mom was completely not interested in matters of clothing or personal appearance. So I’ve had to learn it gradually as an adult, and I remember how much I still don’t know when I read some of Theodora’s posts. I don’t know the right kind of dress to wear to the ballet. I didn’t know that professional women don’t wear nail polish. For that matter, I didn’t realize the important distinction between a silk shell and a cotton tank top.
I’m fascinated that this coded language exists. Some people are unaware of it; some people don’t care about it (although when that is the case, it is usually because they are in a position in which they don’t have to care). Some people have trouble saying what they’d like to with it, either because they don’t know the language well enough or because they don’t have the financial wherewithal. That’s why historically if you were going to be introduced into society, you’d usually have some kind of sponsor, someone who could teach you all the intricacies you’d need to know to send the right message with your appearance and behavior.
John Scalzi talks about his go-to clothing choices (Levis, polo shirt, casual brown shoes) and how they represent “the basic uniform for a middle-class male.” Where I live, in the Silicon Valley, even a polo shirt for a man represents a certain amount of effort. Some men here tend to deliberately ignore style, which is a code in and of itself. Wearing random ill-fitting blue jeans and a free swag T-shirt from your company of employment? Probably a software engineer. Getting to wear those clothes is one of the perks of that position, at least if you’re a guy. I see that uniform less often on women around here, and even when I do see it, the clothing items tend to have a better fit, but I’m not close enough to the industry to say whether this is true across the board or not. I’ve also seen software engineers have to spruce up their wardrobes when they’re after certain promotions; they need their clothes to say something slightly different at that point. (But not too different. It’s a fine line.)
Today I’m wearing a black turtleneck sweater with metallic detailing, a ribbed blue shirt that peeks out from the bottom of the sweater, and stylish blue jeans. I’m wearing sneakers because I was out walking the dog this morning, but I’ll probably change shoes before I go out tonight. I’m not wearing any makeup, and I deliberately have a low maintenance hair cut. No jewelry today, although I’d add a necklace if I wanted to try harder.
All of those facts mean something in the coded language of dress and appearance. What are you wearing today? What messages do you think you’re sending? (And if you’re wearing a Halloween costume, I want to hear about that too, and especially what you think your choice of costume says about you.)