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?

I think it's entirely still true for women, that it's impossible to dress 'unmarked.'

But I think your experience doesn't mean you're not unmarked, I think perhaps men have generally two different kinds of unmarked - suit, and khakis and button down. Maybe?
I think the extent to which one is marked depends largely on context. Within the college campus, there are probably three categories for men's dress: the suit, the khaki and buttondown, and jeans-and-t-shirt. If you are an administrator, I'm guessing only the first two apply. If you make a habit of only wearing one, you become marked when you wear the second. A male prof, on the other hand, could probably pull off being unmarked in all three categories (depending on the college), and an undergrad could probably only pull off the last two without being marked. It's within these categories, I think, that men are less marked than women. Choosing which category to be in, on the other hand...
Definitely still true for women. Despite our educated masses, some of our students still possess a gender bias. Not to mention some colleagues . . .
I do think what you're saying holds true for women. There seems to be a second factor here, which is your habitual choice. If you're most often in a suit, you get comments on being un-suited. I almost never wear pants in favor of skirts and dresses. If I do show up somewhere in pants, I frequently get the "I didn't recognize you" comment from folks. I don't think it makes me and less marked or unmarked. I think it's two different issues.
I think what we are really talking about is that men can dress without it making a comment on thier sexuality or lack thereof.

clearly all clothes carry meaning about position, class, and persona. but mens clothes are less about sex.

incidently have you read Paul Fussell's "Uniforms"? It is very light reading, but interesting
"'s not like I put on a spiky Goth number and pasted a Mohawk toupee over the bald spot."

Though it's awesome when you do.
Why do you wear a suit to work, anyway? It's completely unnecessary. Our Dean doesn't.
Part of the problem is that women's clothing is subject to the whims of fashion in ways that clothing for men is not. For men, a shirt is a shirt, and one can find the same shirt (if not the same shirt exactly) year after year, in a host of stores. For women, a shirt this year has three-quarters length sleeves and is hemmed to the short side, last year was fitted and long, and next year will be sporting large buttons and cuffs. It's hard to find clothing that is "neutral", or standardized against current fashion trends. Replacing a cardigan shouldn't require research. Also, I think, clothing for women is designed to be (primarily) decorative (which is creative in nature and resists uniformity), whereas clothing for men is designed to be (primarily) functional (and there are only so many ways to make a comfortable, functional pair of pants).
I think the clothes are "marked" for both genders, but as several posted have argued, men have some less-charged options to choose from. I'm pretty sure my male colleagues don't have to do a bend-over cleavage check in the dressing room when they are buying work clothes.

On a completely different note, I'm just glad to say that where I work suits on admins are not the norm, from the president on down. I can wear slacks and a blouse with or without jacket/sweater on almost any day and be fine. I ride my bike to school some days and honestly no one seems shocked to see me walking to my office in shorts and a t-shirt. I'm suspecting there's some regional stuff thrown into the mix, as well.
How much of it is the suit, and how much of it is the context? I have trouble identifying people I know casually (particularly students) when they are not in the place where I usually see them.

Its a form of cognitive dissonance. "What are you doing in a grocery store?"
For the record, if I worked in a situation where I had broad budgetary authority, I'd wear a variant on a suit every day.

It's more a statement than anything else, a nod to the fact that I should be serious about the jobs I have influence over.

My 2c.
To my mind, shorts mark the gender line. Very, very rarely do I see a woman who is not a student wearing shorts on campus. Whether a secretary, a professor, or a dean, she's always in a skirt or slacks. Men, except for senior-level administrators, frequently wear shorts at work during warm weather.
To my mind, shorts mark the gender line.

Well, keeping in mind that for men it's either pants or shorts, if the weather is warm then shorts make sense. Sure they're very informal, but the wardrobe doesn't have any other choices.

Women have a dressier option that's cooler than pants. I'm not surprised a lot take it.
I was about to say exactly what CCPhysicist said: it might not be the clothes, but rather the context. And "I didn't recognize you without the suit" seems somehow less embarrassing than "I had no idea who you were because we're in the grocery store, not the administration building" or "what the heck are you doing in my grocery store??!?"
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