Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An Unmarked Car

Many years ago, in one of those gender theory seminars, I remember a remark to the effect that men have the privilege of being able to choose to dress 'unmarked' in a way that women don't. The idea was that American culture had settled on several different uniforms for men, depending on the context, and that men have the option of wearing those uniforms if they want to fit in and not draw particular attention to what they're wearing. Since there isn't a similar understanding of a uniform for women, women have to make conscious decisions about how they dress (and others feel free to draw conclusions about them based on those choices). They don't have a 'default' option the way men do, and they don't have the option of not calling attention to what they're wearing.

(Whether that's still true for women, I'll leave to the collective wisdom of my wise and worldly readers.)

There was enough truth to that for it to stick with me. At work, I can wear, say, a gray suit, and be both situationally appropriate and utterly impersonal. On dress down days, the alternate uniform of tie-less Oxford and khakis (or a close variant) gets the job done. There's nothing terribly interesting about either ensemble, but that's precisely the point. I don't have to think about them, and neither does anybody else. They're like driving unmarked cars. I go where I want without calling undue attention to myself.

Except that they aren't. Over the last couple of weeks, on three separate occasions, I've run into people from the college out in the world, and they've all had the same reaction. "I didn't recognize you without the suit."

Hmm. If the markings were truly neutral, that wouldn't happen.

Uniforms carry meanings of their own, of course. Although it's somewhat dated, I still sometimes hear Administration referred to as "the suits." (For the record, academics don't wear suits quite the way businesspeople do. On the milder side, we blow off the "button-down collars are for sport jackets" rule, which is fine by me. On the more severe side, well, let's just say that some of us need Garanimals sewn into our clothes, and some have apparently never heard of 'ironing.') But even allowing for that, it's still striking to be told, repeatedly and in apparent sincerity, that the suit simply erases the person. I can't blame on it what I was wearing in civilian life, either -- it's not like I put on a spiky Goth number and pasted a Mohawk toupee over the bald spot. I was just dressed like a suburban dad, which, in fact, I am.

The civilian clothes carry markings of their own, admittedly. At TG's preschool graduation, I saw another Dad in a jumpsuit with his name sewn on a patch. I was doing the Oxford-and-khakis thing. It wasn't hard to guess who had the office job. But even allowing for that, it's not like I was somehow out of character when I wasn't recognized.

There's unmarked, and then there's unmarked. The late Mitch Hedberg once theorized that the reason all those photos of Bigfoot are blurry is that Bigfoot himself was blurry. Maybe the clothes carry meaning, and I'm just indistinct.


Wise and worldly readers -- has something like this happened to you?