Reclaim the suits!

Steve Jobs in his trademark jeans and sneakers

Back in 2002, Center Co-Director Stephen Duncombe took part in a “Rant-a-Thon” held as a fund raiser for the direct action protest group Reclaim the Streets at the KGB bar in New York City. He chose to rant about leisurewear, and for a reclamation of formal attire for the masses…

So you see a guy walking down the street: well-shined leather shoes, nicely cut suit, lightly starched shirt, silk tie. What do you think?

The Man. 

A walking symbol of all that is wrong with America. Hierarchy, conformity, order, repression and all-around-uptightness. In your eyes the well suited man is John Ashcroft, a man who doesn’t dance, who clothes nude statues, and whose father taught him that a starched white shirt is “the mark of a civilized man.” (I’m not making that one up).

There’s no doubt that John Ashcroft is a creep and that repressive order is on the march in post 9/11 America. But what’s really wrong with this country, contrary to what so many of us on the libertarian Left believe, is not an excess of straight-laced order. Instead it’s America’s seemingly infinite capacity for self-deception. We Americans refuse to see our country as an imperial power and insist we are a beleaguered underdog. We don’t acknowledge that driving our SUVs drains the world’s resources, makes us dependent upon repressive foreign regimes, and kicks a hole the size of Ohio in the ozone. And we deceive ourselves into believing that The Man is easily identifiable in a white, starched shirt.

Nothing symbolizes this awe inspiring capacity for self delusion better than the clothes we Americans like to wear: Sweats, leggings, cargo pants, and pleated chinos. Polo shirts, T-shirts and button-downs untucked. Running shoes on grown men and women. Baseball caps.

Yes, my comrades, the problem I’m talking about here is leisure wear.

Let me explain.

As most of you here know I habitually wear suits. Many of you don’t know, however, that this means I have an intimate relationship with my tailor. If  I gain (or, less frequently, loose) weight I have to go to him to have my wasteland altered. “Steve,” my tailor says to me, “You have gained weight.” “Yes,” I must reply, “I have gained weight.” And there I am, forced to be honest with myself and to the world.

But if I was wearing sweat pants would this happen? No. The elastic waste band would merely conform to my new girth and my invariably untucked polo shirt would make my expanding belly almost unnoticeable. I could sustain the lie that things had not changed in my life.  I’m still a “medium.” Everything is just as it was. Everything is A-OK.

Running shoes also facilitate the great lie,  allowing us to deceive ourselves as to just how boring our lives really are. They are the SUV of footwear. Nearly every advertisement for a sport utility vehicle shows the owner/driver climbing mountains, forging rivers, and charging across the Serengeti Plains. But we all know where most SUVs are sold: where most people live: the suburbs. And what are these eight cylinder, four wheel drive behemoths really used for? Picking up the groceries at the supermarket or dragging the kids down to Six Flags Great Adventure. But the promise of every SUV is that you could be doing something else. Except for the kids, the job, the mortgage and the spouse, you could be, would be, on safari.

The same goes with running shoes. Who runs in them? Not many of us. But the sneaker beguiles us into thinking we could. We could be training for a marathon, we could dash into the street swift as lightning and snatch that child from in front of the speeding taxi…we could be loosing weight.

My mildly uncomfortable hard leather street shoes with their slippery soles do not allow me to practice such self-deception. I can not escape the fact that I am doing nothing more athletic or adventurous than walking from my apartment to my office. A careless child may be the less fortunate for my decision to wear dress shoes, but at least I am honest about what I really do each day.

I know what you are thinking: “But Steve, leisure clothes are so comfortable.”

Maybe for you, but how about for the rest of us who have to look at you? When was the last time you walked down the streets and commented on how nice someone’s Hard Rock Café T-shirt looked? Or when you last noted how a person’s fluffy white Reeboks complimented their ankles? I’ll take a guess: Never.

When a woman or man takes time to dress in the morning: Making sure their shoes are shined, their jacket pressed. Tying on a scarf or tie that picks up a color in their shirt or a line in their pinstripe. Checking themselves in the mirror to make sure the whole assemblage looks right before heading out the door. When a person does this they give a gift to the world;  they are a walking piece of art. Sure it might hurt a little: the shoes pinch and the jacket is hot, but it’s a selfless sacrifice. Such a person dresses for the public, not merely for themselves.

But what of the person dressed in comfort clothes? Who are they dressing for? Easy answer: Themselves. We are used to calling women and men who dress to the nines “vain,” condemning them as self-obsessed. This gets it backwards. It is those who dress without a thought to what the rest of us on the street have to look at who are selfish. They give us nothing and themselves everything.  Leisure wear is  the manifestation of an alienated bourgeois individualism; the well turned out man or woman is the paragon of public, socialist virtue.

Again you raise objections: “But everybody wears leisure clothes, they’re egalitarian.”

You have half a point. Everybody is in leisure wear. Last week I opened the newspaper and there’s our President relaxing on the golf course wearing expandable waste trousers and a polo shirt. He looks just like the rest of us.

And that, comrades, is part of the problem.

At one time the elite was nervous about us all looking alike, passing sumptuary laws to preserve visual lines of power. An English proclamation of 1597, for instance. forbid all those below the rank of Earl and Knights of the Garter from wearing “Silke of purple color.” Later, on these shores, the New York Tribune of 1895 sniffed disapprovingly about the “dress parade” of African Americans who strolled up and down “African Broadway” on 7th Avenue between 27th and 40th streets, decked out in fine clothes, dressing above their station.

But we live in different, more “democratic,” times now. A pinko like me can dress like a proper bourgeois and George Bush can dress like a retired postal worker barbecuing in his back yard. Surely this is progress, a triumph of egalitarianism.

It is not.

We may all look the same but we are decidedly not the same. George Bush has more money, more power, and more privilege than me or you or any retired postal worker will ever have.

In the old days you could tell who the elite was: they were the ones with mutton chop sideburns, long black coats and high stovepipe hats. That’s also what made them vulnerable: their distinctive dress was an open rebuke to a so-called democracy. Today, however, they walk among us, blending into the sea of khakis. Over the past few centuries of democracy the elite may have had to abandon some of their arrogant privilege – no longer can they ride rough over the fields of peasants during their fox hunts – but they’ve received something far more valuable in return: invisibility.

Let the elite have leisure wear, it’s time for us to reclaim the suit!