by Dominique Michelle Davis
In a recent discussion with a close friend the topic of appropriate dress attire was debated. I took personal offense to the attire worn to a business casual event and said as much, which got my gears grinding about the inception of formal dress codes and the purposes behind them. I went to my Emily Post book and scanned a few articles about western and eastern dress codes and the class and social status that dress can portray. There was clear evidence of a haves and the have not’s formation in the writing there, so it imagined people as being either wealthy or poor. Are we seeing a reduction in dress due to a reduction of the middle class? Or is it pure rebellion against restricted social structures that pre-approve style trends?
As a person who questions all forms of conformity within society I really had to think about why this particular issue bothered me so. I saw my friend as an extension of me, which was something (his attire) and someone I couldn’t control. I took personal umbrage because I knew that he was aware of the rules and chose not to oblige, yet, I choose to break dress code rules as a way to establish individual style and personal preference all the time.The great thing about people pushing back against codes of appropriate dress is that it encourages individuals who choose not to follow traditional and conservative paths of dress to the work of developing cultures and norms off the beaten path, something that could also then extend into their pursuing career fields and environments more accepting of their individual expression (or perhaps even changing the sense of what is and is not appropriate dress in some of those more restricting and conservative fields).
The free spirit and conservative conformist within me polarizes my thoughts and led me to a temporary state of confusion and concluded with why do I even care how another person chooses to dress? I know from personal experience that I loathe when people try to dress me in what they deem to be appropriate for the context or setting, but sometimes it’s just easier to get along and go along than to stand my ground on the issue. Some battles just aren’t worth it. Some days I wish I could just go to work in jeans and a t-shirt. It’s not as if my intellectual capacity is in any way affected by my outward appearance. SO again, why was I so bothered?
The answer for me, and for many, is that what has been impressed as acceptable has molded my view for dress codes to be in alignment with venue and social settings. Deep down I admired my friend’s ability not to care about what other people think, yet his choice to choose that setting to make a point to be an individual had me less than pleased. My ability to recognize my conformity to rigid social structures of dress has helped to create a voice that I never knew could coexist with following a set of rules imposed against what some may call free will. It is important to also consider, put simply, that these rules are often in place to create new structures for disciplining people on the basis of their identity – especially gender, sexuality, race, and age – and that this too is reason to be very critical about too while also investigating our individual belief systems about dress codes. That is, what is the underlying statement or implication for statements we make about the dress of others particularly as it relates to systems of oppression, marginalization, and injustice?
In 2016 where the rule stands to be there are no rules, or moving further along those lines, do dress codes even still exist? And when is it ok to make a fashion faux pas? Kanye West’s recent display at the Met Gala speaks to previous writings by Dr. Eric Darnell Pritchard in an essay for Ebony Magazine called “Who Gets to Make a Social Fashion Statement?” In some respect, lending credence to artists who have created a platform have the ability to make socially conscious or unconscious statements with dress is a win for everyone as it disrupts rigid belief systems of propriety that limit who can and cannot transgress in everyday life.
I am in no way in support of the blue eyed contacts Kanye wore to the MET Gala, or even suggesting that Mr. West was making a socially conscious statement, but one does have to question why he chose that venue, that setting and that platform to make a world debut of a clearly statement on representation and race by wearing blue eyed contacts after creating recent songs such as “Black Skinhead” and “Blood of the Leaves,” I’m just saying. I’m really interested in understanding his thoughts with his latest fashion statement and how it, as an example, might inform my larger comment here about social spaces and appropriate dress. Kanye’s introduction to the black skinned blue-eyed West was probably the most appropriate place to display his break. Maybe he actually knows the Bluest Eye and will enlighten us in his new album; title yet unknown.
Dress codes, and a lack thereof, ranging from white tie to grunge all fall within an economic class, and in many cases a performance of race, that has been normed by those included to be an inclusive safe haven. I think about a quote from Emily Post, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” Fashion, personal style and dress codes create an outward outlet for freedom of expression, which also has the ability to offend our delicate sensibilities when it doesn’t align with constructed worldview that we’ve created. In this respect we see how the feelings of others can be both something that liberates, but also in the case if dress codes, can constrain and regulate people across difference and individual as well as communal modes of style for expression. Kudos to those who create their own lane, it takes courage to break the mold. Just maybe give those of us who aren’t prepared a heads up? Even if you do not give a heads up, there always seems to be a code to be included regardless. The code when you are breaking the social norm is you are not to be trusted because here comes trouble. It is worth it to think about what that response to dress code transgressions mean and what effect they have for the transgressors and also the transgressed.