A fashion post in tribute to Craig

I posted a couple tweets about clothing this afternoon, and since Craig expressed annoyance, I figured it would be a good idea to do a whole blog post! I joked to Craig that trying to conform to something like traditional men’s dress was an integral part of my “religious but not spiritual” lifestyle. It’s nice to have arbitrary guidelines.

For reasons that are actually pretty unclear, clothes were always a point of contention between me and my mom growing up. She wanted me to dress very fashionably, I didn’t feel comfortable with it, and we met halfway — she’d buy the stuff and I’d hardly wear most of it. Over time, it became a real source of anxiety for me, as I was constantly criticized for my “boring” preferences when in fact I had never developed any positive preferences at all. The traditional parameters provided me with much-needed support in the big Other, giving me room to actually develop a rudimentary fashion sense of some kind.

In the years since I started teaching, I’ve reached a point where only two or three garments I own are more than a couple years old. The most notable holdover is a jacket that I got for a high school dance, which may be the only piece of clothing I have ever successfully “grown into.” (I struggled to maintain a weight of 120 lbs. in high school, and so I can’t imagine how huge it must have been on me at the time.) I’ve made a lot of questionable purchases over the years, but my native thrift has meant that I’ve never paid full retail for any of them — in fact, I probably wound up wasting more money on net trying to do everything on the cheap. Sometimes it feels like I’m spending a lot of money on clothes, but really I’m making up for the many, many years when I was getting by on stuff from high school and college, supplemented by the occasional Christmas gift. I doubt I would have spent any less on more casual stuff.

I set certain goals for myself from time to time. This summer, my project was trying to dress appropriately for the season, as I perceived that spring and especially summer are the times when you really need to know what you’re doing. Last year, I decided that I would solve the Pants Problem, once and for all, and I feel that I essentially did. Moving forward, I’d like to make a decisive advance in the field of sleeve length, which has been a persistent difficulty for me.

My ultimate goal is to reach a point where I don’t have to think about it, where the big Other will lay out my clothes for me each morning. This isn’t to say that I won’t think about it, but that I won’t have to — the hope is that my “lazy,” unthinking option will be reliably presentable. The simplicity, the mix-and-match interchangeability of parts (so foreign to my Midwestern upbringing, with its emphasis on individual “outfits” drawn from display models), is a big part of the appeal of the traditional men’s model. Wearing a suit every day to teach would in many ways be the simplest approach of all — I wouldn’t even have to pick out my pants and jacket separately!

Anyway, what do you think, dear readers?

47 thoughts on “A fashion post in tribute to Craig

  1. As someone who occasionally affects a knowingness about men’s dress, I suspect that the big Other doesn’t so much lay out your clothes for you as it offers you a vocabulary of heightened anxiety. But I wish you luck. Don’t hesitate to take your shirts to the dry-cleaner for tailoring.

  2. Naomi Wolf devoted a full chapter, in The Beauty Myth, to an attempt to characterize women’s quest to be beautiful as a religion. The church of beauty. You don’t have to buy her argument to agree that the subset of cultural life that we think of as “fashion & beauty” resonates with common definitions of religion. It’s cyclical (based on seasons), which gives it a kind of festival air from time to time. It’s ritualistic, practice based. It’s built up through a set of codes, or dogmas, that we can sometimes trace back to historical origins, and sometimes not. And it remains in place by virtue of forms of hope and belief (“If I wear this pair of shoes, then ____ will certainly happen!”) This kind of faith, and the rigor of these codes are also, as in religious traditions, sustained through complexes of power and authority.

    Surely, your attempt to embrace this religious aspect of fashion is precisely why your fashion commentaries are apt to generate annoyance, or displeasure. I respect your journey, I do. And I actually enjoy reading your fashion commentaries. But Wolf’s attempt to speak about beauty (and, by extension, fashion) as a kind of religion was an attempt to, thus, interrogate these power relations that sustain it. I’m a little surprised, given your attention to power relations in so many other contexts and discourses, that this doesn’t often seem to accompany your discussions about fashion. In seeking out the proper (orthodox) rules and codes of fashion, you’re seeking to embrace and sustain a kind of cultural power and authority. At least, that’s how I’m reading it.

    Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t think about fashion. I meant what I said, on Twitter, when I joked that I kind of envy the fact that you can talk about fashion without looking like a bimbo. I think about fashion way too much. But I have a very tortured and painful relationship to it, the way that some people have a tortured and painful relationship to, say, evangelical Christianity. When I was a kid, my mother let me dress however I saw fit, which was totally fun and often included outfits with mismatched socks, bright red socks with lavender shoes (that was actually a popular one), shorts with big rainbow socks. Lots of things that included fun with socks and colors. This gave me the sense that costuming was a form of play. As I got older, as other kids made fun of me, or it became clearer and clearer to me how much certain forms of dress correlated with forms of social approval and their attendant rewards, much of the joy of costuming was sapped. Some of it has remained. I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t like getting dressed up. I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t secretly love it when another lady compliments me on my earrings (even if it’s totally wrong I can’t help but be like, “oh! maybe she likes me!”) But I get a kind of sick feeling when I go from my house, where I’m getting costumed for some professional context. And then I get on the train and I’m surrounded by a really diverse range of people, going about their business doing other things, and I feel like I’m totally wearing a sign that says “aspirationally upper middle class!” on my head. Clothes signify a lot. More than that, I feel this really terrible form of guilt over the kinds of purchases I allow myself to make. I try to get everything second hand, or to make it myself. But every once in a while, I make an impulse buy from some major retail chain and I totally feel shame. I feel awful about the fact that I continue to wear leather shoes, because I love shoes so much, and I’m still not convinced that there’s a breatheable, high quality non-leather alternative. Anyhow, I could go on. But you get my point.

    I suppose, all I’m really saying, is that I guess I must see fashion as something that I’m “religious but not spiritual” about, as well. But, for me, it’s the kind of religiousity that’s loaded with guilt, and shame, and anger, and bitterness, and resentment. But weirdly sustained by some still small, alluring, sense that there’s more to it than that.

  3. It sounds like you’re really searching for some kind of authentic self-expression that I would associate more with the “spiritual” rather than “religious” side.

    It’s true that there are power relations in all of this. I am partly trying to dress in such a way as to claim my social role — while definitely distinguishing myself from lawyers or bankers or whoever else wears suits. I’m sure there was a class-aspirational aspect to my mom’s shopping habits, too, and I’ve certainly “sublated” that in my own way. I was also struck by what one of my professors told me when I asked how I should dress for my dissertation defense — she said that a suit and tie would probably be overdoing it for me, but not for a black or Korean student. It’s as though I was already “dressed up” to a certain degree by virtue of being white, before I put on any clothes at all (and that probably plays into the widely observed phenomenon of young black academic men dressing absolutely to the nines…).

    All the guilt issues that you talk about are patterns of thinking that I try to avoid in all areas of my life — I really resist being drawn into what I see as the moralism of closely policing my consumption habits — and I recognize there’s a privilege there. And it’s true that my thinking about this is “optional” in a way that it is not for women, for instance.

  4. Less than “searching for some kind of authentic self-expression”, I would say that I’m attempting to avoid sharply reiterating the power relations that I observe as already being in-play in social rituals such as costuming. Perhaps also to develop some sort of ethical consistency in consumption habits. I feel like we may have discussed this before. Obviously, I don’t think I’m going to save the world by making a more ethical consumption choice. And I also realize that the desire of consumers to be ethical is easily manipulated. But neither does this make consumption a fully non-ethical issue, to me. It’s a false dichotomy: either you try to be an ethical consumer, or you don’t. At any rate, I don’t feel like either of those are aimed in the direction of some sort of quixotic quest for authenticity.

    I suppose that, another level of the point I was trying to make, was to highlight a possible consequence of taking a “religious but not spiritual” approach. I feel like one of the reasons that the moniker “spiritual but not religious” has generated so much ire is because it always seems that the person who makes this pronouncement is trying to place herself in some state of innocence and blamelessness. By claiming that one is not “religious”, it seems to become possible to dis-identify with the violence and ugliness of institutional religion, and to seek after some pure thing called “spirituality.”

    In our field, however, that attitude (of being “spiritual but not religious”) has long been critiqued, criticized, and faced with various forms scholarly attack. People who study religion and theology have often cultivated more nuanced views of tradition and they see this “spiritual but not religious” sort of posture as simplistic and even socially dangerous (Bellah’s “Sheilaism”, for example. May he rest in peace.)

    I see this older conversation in the background, when I hear you use the ironic phrase “religious but not spiritual.” And I think it’s funny. If you have been influenced by some aspects of this disciplinary critique that I mentioned, then I probably agree with many of your reasons for using it. But, one of the interesting things that happens when you turn that phrase around and begin to use it ironically is that this mimesis then imports aspects of it into your own posture. I wonder if there isn’t an air of attempted blamelessness and innocence in making the claim that something is being done because one is “religious but not spiritual.” It begins to seem possible that one can dis-identify with the vacuity and historical blindness of “spirituality.” But is it? One is simply trying to ritualistically re-iterate the rules and codes of a tradition… what could be bad about that? It’s lucky, for you, that you are well placed, such that the rules and codes doled out by the Big Other of fashion are not experienced as forms of violence. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the rules that are then embraced and re-iterated aren’t experienced as forms of violence by others. I think you’re acknowledging this (your privilege, that is). But I wonder if there isn’t also something in the nature of this approach that protects the privilege as well.

  5. Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s turn it around. Let’s say that I were to imitate Craig and always wear slovenly clothes on principle. To me, that would be an even greater manifestation of white male privilege, because that “unpretensious” stance is not available in the same way to my non-white, non-male colleagues.

    Further, it seems to me that casual dress brings with it a set of codes and standards that are much more opaque — think of the complex hermeneutics of “business casual,” “smart casual,” etc., or how important brands become as a signaling device in the casual regime — and this creates a situation that is more disadvantageous to people outside a certain class background.

  6. You make a good point. But, then, what if it’s also the case that the white guy who dresses like a schmuck then creates the opportunity for his female, or non-white, colleagues to stand out by dressing sharply?

  7. I’m being interpellated again. My views on clothing are simple:

    * if they were good enough to write the paper in, they are good enough to read the paper in;
    * if they were good enough to write the job application in, they are good enough to be interviewed in;
    * if they were good enough to go to grocery in yesterday, they are good enough to teach in tomorrow.

    This means that if you want to be a “Mad-cademic,” you have to do it 24/7. Otherwise, who you fooling? Wear jeans and a hood (symbolic cred!), wear jeans and a shirt (comfortable!). Alternative: go back to the Hogwart’s-esque glory days and we wear full regalia while on campus and/or doing job functions (only if I get a wand, a sword, and a dragon).

  8. Under the current regime, it seems to me that I’m in kind of a no-win position — which is fine, and I’m comfortable with the choice I’ve made. I guess for me the horizon would be that people who wanted to experiment with fashion could do so, while those who didn’t make that a concern could rely on “default settings” that actually enhanced their appearance. This would only work if we were somehow able to collectively “de-cathect” from the power games — it would have to be a “real state of exception,” taking a step beyond the current “state of exception that’s become the rule” of universally enforced “casual.” We would have to learn, in Agamben’s terms, simply to use clothing.

  9. I’m with you, Adam. Like I said, I’m always getting dressed up. My reasons are both strategic and aesthetic. And, really, I would hate to see you in a pair of dad jeans and feel partially responsible for a thing like that. I suppose the thing that made me play devil’s advocate was the bit about rules and secret codes from the Big Other, and whatnot.

  10. * if they were good enough to write the paper in, they are good enough to read the paper in;

    I’m reminded of the anecdote related in This is Not a Novel:

    The editor of Novy Mir began to read a prepublication copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in bed.And then he found himself so impressed that he not only got up but put on a suit and a necktie to finish with what he felt to be the requisite respect.

    Also, what if you wrote the paper at home, entirely in underthings?

  11. Here are my requirements for clothing:

    (1) Pockets for wallet, phone, pen, keys, chalk, and change. Ideally, the same pair of pants will also have room for dog/cat treats, shit bags, and so on. A “good” wardrobe therefore demands something like two pairs of jeans (=denim; not business causal) and a pair of cargo pants. The latter are helpful, for instance, for doing chores (cleaning, holding screws and nails, screwdrivers, a hammer) and it’s “okay” if they get covered with oil, paint, grass, etc. Call my approach to pants “maximally functional,” if you want.

    (2) Two layers on top. Given the inconsistencies inherent in institutional heating and cooling–along with particularly impassioned lectures getting hot–two layers are a must. This leads to hood/t-shirt or shirt/t-shirt combination. Presumably the “well dressed man” does not want to take his tie and dress shirt off to reveal the “wifebeater” beneath! Admittedly, the “Mad-cademic” could remove his jacket, but he’s still left with two layers. Likewise, I usually end up putting more chalk and an eraser in my pocket while teaching, no self respecting man is going to “ruin” an expensive jacket with chalk dust.

    (3) In terms of shoes, a cheap converse-style shoe is suitable for most occasions, but I also have a pair of rain boots and a pair of winter boots.

    (4) In terms of outer wear, I recommend a water proof jacket for rain and light snow, a “military” style jacket (fatigue, not dress blues!) for spring and fall, and a winter jacket for, well, winter (as long as we still have winter). Again, more pockets the better. Otherwise, the top layer in (2) is always suitable.

    (5) A “messenger” style bag for papers, books, notes, etc.

    It remains unclear to me what is gained in refusing this standard. (As an aside, because it is, I’d submit that I am more true to the spirit of merely “using” clothing than you are.) I have absolutely no anxiety vis a vis my clothing choices for any situation at all. You, on the other hand, produce anxiety vis a vis clothing and recode those anxieties as culture, sophistication, looking good, etc. If it works psychologically for you, all the power to you, but I have enough anxiety in my life from, for instance, working a low-paying job with limited career prospects that I don’t need to add in matching my tie to my shirt to my jacket to my pants to my belt to my shoes to my brief case.

  12. Ben: Also, what if you wrote the paper at home, entirely in underthings?

    All the more freedom to you. I’d advise checking with local laws, however, regarding public displays of genitalia (e.g., if you’re nuts slip out beyond the confines of your boxers in certain positions).

  13. Craig, You’ll only truly arrive at the point of pure use when you can put aside your obvious pride in your superior pragmatism. It seems obvious to me that your oh so practical approach is a power play for a certain type of prestige (authenticity, no-bullshit, etc.).

  14. The key is to live your joke in all seriousness. Only when the distinction between fun and seriousness has been destroyed can we be truly free.

    Anyone remember the shitty “post-hardcore” of their youth where mediocre bands like Nation of Ulysses included manifestoes in the liner notes and said stuff like “the kids being alienated can only overcome this alienation by dressing well”? Suits as revolutionary punk rock aesthetic! Imagine that.

  15. I’m more than happy to put chalk in my jacket pockets. If anything, the problem I have with wearing jackets is that there are so many pockets I can’t imagine what they’re all supposed to be for.

  16. I grant that many jackets have multiple pockets (sometimes even three!) and that they are often very roomy, but I don’t see how this confers any advantage over a hood, especially given the cost differential. On the dollars to pocket space ratio, hoods have jackets beat by a long-shot, even jackets purchased from discount “men’s fashion warehouses.”

  17. Most of my jackets have three pockets on the outside (one on the chest, two on the sides — the latter often including sub-pockets), along with three or four on the interior. Many have a pen slot as well. It’s really an embarrassment of riches, and I’m not lying when I say I have no idea what they’re all for. There’s probably even a pocket in there where you could put a hat in case your head got cold!

    None of my jackets costs more than $100, and most are much less. I don’t know if you realize this, but thrift stores sell jackets — you could probably get one for $10 or so. I share your skepticism of wearing clothes one is not comfortable in (as in the people who are afraid to get a speck of dust or a wrinkle on their nice suit), but the fact that some people treat the traditional look that way does not indicate any inner necessity.

  18. I think you guys each need to send the other person a choice sample from your personal wardrobe, then, on the same day, you can wear the other person’s clothing for a full day. And then blog about it. But take pictures. And you have to post the pictures. And then you can argue in favor of the superiority of your own aesthetic *while you are wearing the other person’s clothes.*

  19. Hence you could just go to the thrift store and buy a jacket that would probably have more pockets and last longer than your hoodie — except that you won’t do that, because your aesthetic is to have an anti-aesthetic. You aren’t wearing the clothes simply because they’re functional. You’re wearing them because they’re ugly. You want to signal your rejection of what other styles of dress signify to you. In other words, like me you’re working through some deep-seated shit, but unlike me, you choose to express it as an attitude of sneering superiority to everyone who would choose differently from you.

  20. Craig here successfully debunked the vast majority of human craft and culture beyond utilitarian minima. My lack of hat off to you.

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