Decoding Dress: Communication and Self-Fashioning
Like a lot of men, I inherited whatever sense of style I have from my father. He was a man of rigorous and refined sensibilities—a trained tailor, a scholar, an activist, and an ordained minister. For years my dad endured my sartorial misadventures (asymmetrical “new-wave” haircuts, nylon parachute pants, the “punk” look, which consisted of deliberately torn
garments held together with safety pins or duct tape) in quiet despair. It is said that the boy is father to the man, but, at least in this case, it turned out the father was the father: at long last I followed my dad’s lead. I came to appreciate the virtues of well-cut tailored clothing, polished dress shoes, crisp shirts, even, on occasion, a necktie—though life in early twenty-first-century Northern California rarely calls for one. I learned how to tie a half and full Windsor and a four-in-hand knot and how to tie a bow tie—this last a skill needed only for rare black-tie events but, my dad insisted, worth mastering because “when the time comes, you won’t be stuck wearing one of those ridiculous clip-ons.” I learned how to tell the difference between a jacket properly constructed with a floating canvas and one that is fused (“glued together,” Dad would grumble). Most of all, I learned that clothing could be both a form of self-constitution and a medium of communication, and how attire conveys respect or disdain, purpose or aimlessness, seriousness or frivolity. This combination of personal significance and social meaning explains why governments, businesses, and the institutions of civil society regulate attire and why individuals often consider such regulations oppressive and insulting.
My father had died twelve years before I decided to enter Esquire magazine’s Best Dressed Real Man contest in 2009. My circumstances at the time will be familiar to any new parent: my second child was ten months old and my wife, Marlene, and I hadn’t been out to dinner or a movie in as many months; our aspirations to a glamorous and urbane existence were a faded memory, our fashionable—or at least serviceable—festive attire pushed aside to make room for a slew of cotton onesies and bright plastic baby toys; our feeble attempts at grown-up merrymaking reduced to cocktails hastily mixed in the kitchen in between bottle feedings and diaper changes. One day after work I decided it would be a welcome change of pace to enter the Esquire contest and rally our friends to support my quixotic campaign: harried forty-three-year-old dad versus a bevy of lantern-jawed aspiring actors, sinewy fashion models, and athletic-looking frat boys: David against Adonis. The entry deadline was the next day. Marlene got out the camera and snapped a series of pictures. My five-year-old son Cole explored my stack of old magazines while ten-month-old Ella did everything she could to get her parents’ attention. A few minutes later, with Ella screaming for a bottle or a diaper change, we called it quits. I uploaded the snapshots, filled out a short questionnaire, and hit “send.”
Then I scoped out the competition. Other contestants had professional photos shot in exotic locations with exquisite backlighting. Some had already amassed tens of thousands of votes; I was hoping to break into triple digits. Several weeks later the website posted the top twenty-five semifinalists and, to my astonishment, there were the photos of me holding a squirming toddler while trying to show a favorite blue pinstripe suit to its best effect. It couldn’t be right: I refreshed the browser and waited for the real list of semifinalists to appear. I was still there. A few days later my phone rang: Esquire had narrowed the field to ten, whom they were now interviewing in order to select five finalists who would fly to New York, receive fabulous prizes, and appear on the Today show. They wanted to talk to me about my personal style. How did you choose what to wear? Can you be more specific? What tips do you offer others? “Be yourself” isn’t very helpful, is it? Why is style important to you? Who are your style inspirations? C’mon, everyone says their father; who else? Everyone says Cary Grant. Everyone says Miles Davis too. David Bowie; that’s better. Which era? Let’s Dance? Really? A few days later, the editor called again to break the bad news: I was number six, just short of the cut-off for finalists. It was all great fun, but also humbling. Talking about my personal style should have been easy: I’m a professor, someone who explains things to people for a living. But I blew the interview. I knew intuitively why I wore what I did, but I could not explain it to save my life—or my chances at a fabulous, all-expenses-paid weekend in New York City. My dad’s guidance had—against all odds—he