Cassandra observes:

When I go out in jeans and sneakers people aren’t rude or unpleasant, but the sense of friendliness and niceness does drop. The difference is more noticeable in men than in women – when I’m decked out in full girlie regalia men actually go out of their way to do favors for me – but it’s there in women too. I used to have a job at which every time I wore a skirt at least 3 or 4 female co-workers would stop me in the corridor and compliment me. In all these scenarios it almost feels like I’m being approvingly patted on the head for conforming perfectly to what is expected of my gender, even though my personality remains as assertive and non-girly as ever.

Bob asks:

We do get rewarded for conforming to norms. That’s how they come to be norms. What are norms if not those things society pats us on the head for following? Is this bad though?

This actually opens the door for a fundamental difference in opinion that my wife and I have, but I’ll have to table that for the time being because this is going to be a long enough post as it is.

Cassandra’s point is broader than mere dress, and hers has more to do with gender norms than anything, but I think that dress is a good place to start since it is mostly voluntary.

Simply put, how we dress is a representation of who we are. We make minor changes because we think that a particular color or style looks better on us, but for the most part it’s a representation. Even if someone dresses based solely on comfort, their representation is that they don’t care about their representation. Even if we dress a particular way because our job requires it, the only difference being that we are making the representation that someone else wants us to make and that we’re willing to do so in exchange for food and shelter.

Everyone knows this, yet people frequently forget it (or at least forget the inevitability of it) when it’s convenient to. For instance, a mohawked, blue-haired punk might complain that store clerks watch them more closely because they falsely assume that everyone dressed that way is a shoplifter. The obvious solution is that if you don’t want to be treated like a punk, don’t dress like one. But that seems so unfair because people shouldn’t make judgments based on someone’s appearance. Poppycock. They dress that way in large part precisely so that people will make judgments. Maybe not the negative judgments of the store clerk but at least the positive judgment of those with similar sensibilities. You can’t have one without the other.

On a sidenote, I want to be clear that I do not endorse harassment of anybody based on how they dressed. A clerk looking a little bit closer at strangely dressed customers does not constitute harassment, in my opinion. I am merely using this as an example of negative behavior that some people complain about.

I’ll go even further and make what I don’t believe to be a controversial statement: in some sense, these people want the negative attention. If store clerks, as a proxy for society at large, approved of their fashion they would probably go out of their way to change into something else. Expressing one’s individuality requires differentiating yourself from others and you can’t expect people that you’re making a point of differentiating yourself from are less instinctively warm to you. You’re sending a signal. You can hardly be upset that they’re receiving it.

We might say that we dress this way or that based solely on how much we like it aesthetically. To a very limited extent, this is sometimes true. Some ladies genuinely look better in blue jeans and a shirt than they do in a dress. Some people look better may even look better with purple hair regardless of the social norms (though purple hair usually involves social context). Even when this is the case, however, we are choosing from the cafeteria of social conventions. I’m sure that by some objective criteria some guys would look best in a toga, but such a fellow would probably make do with a tanktop.

In the end, it always comes down to the baseline of social norms. Those that conform to the norms usually end up changing as the norms do (until we reach an age where we’re tired of changing) and those that deviate from the norm usually deviate in some familiar way. If you want to dress in true rebellion, but on that toga, a powdered wig, or heck a giant garbage sack. We don’t, though, because they (generally) make the same judgments about people that do that straight-laced folks make about them.

So having said all that, let me pull this post back to gender norms before wrapping it up. As with any other deviation from a norm, men and women suffer (though not equally) when they deviate from that norm. So why are the norms different and who does it benefit? I can’t explain why they are as they are, though who it benefits depends on one’s personal tastes.

A woman that dresses in men’s clothes without make-up makes off a whole lot better than a man that dresses as women do. A woman can enhance her appearance and detract from her flaws with make-up while men (generally) can’t. Women have all sorts of dresses and shirts and shirts and pants to choose from, men get only a select portion of those options. On the other hand, more is expected of women. They’re under more pressure to put make-up over their flaws. They’re looked at differently when they dress lazy. Some of their clothes seem deliberately designed to cause discomfort. Women have the freedom of options and more responsibility to match while men lack freedom and pressure.

Would the world be a better place if both genders had the exact same expectations and pressures? Maybe, but it’s sort of a moot question. Just as the punk needs Tommy Hilfiger to define who he isn’t, women will find ways to differentiate themselves from men and vice-versa. Further, with our bodies being different and all, we will almost certainly always want to accentuate different parts of our appearance.

Category: Coffeehouse

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7 Responses to Deviation Needs Its Norm

  1. Peter says:

    Riding the train every day has turned me into a careful if unwilling observer of the interplay between clothing and behavior. As I’ve noted on about 500,000 occasions, men who wear suits – SCA’s – display an array of undesirable behavioral traits that make life miserable for inferior downtrodden schmucks like me. These ultra-Alpha, testosterone-dripping traits include pushing and shoving their way onto trains to get “prime” seats, spreading their newspapers wide open (always turned to the sports pages, of course) into the faces of other riders, babbling away with their booming loud voices on their cell phones or sometimes to other SCA’s, and worse of all plunking their usually large posteriors into spaces physically too small to accommodate said posteriors.

    And yet … the suits they wear are mere symptoms, or by-products if you will, of the underlying circumstances that cause their obnoxious behavior. In today’s era of business casual most men who wear suits to work are high-powered executives and professionals. Typically they have whole layers of subordinates catering to their every whim and are used to getting their way without question in every instance. It is not difficult to see how such absolute power easily turns into an overbearing manner even outside the work context.

    Take one of these top executives and put him in casual clothing, and likely as not he’ll still be domineering and obnoxious. And the reverse hold true as well – put an ordinary working man in a suit, and chances are he’ll behave decently.

  2. Barry says:

    One thing that’s always puzzled me – there seems to be a whole category of women’s clothing (mostly shoes to be honest, but some dresses) that seem deliberately designed as to to be uncomfortable. Then there are another category of women’s clothes – really, no less attractive and flattering to the figures of the same women who wear the first category of clothes – that is much more comfortable and stylish. But women choose to continue to pour, and squeeze, and stuff, and whatever else themselves into the first category. And then endlessly complain that they’re “forced” to wear them.

    The second category is just as applicable in most every situation. Yet women continually believe that wearing stylish yet uncomfortable clothes is a necessary fashion choice.

    There’s not a single category of men’s clothes that’s comparable – if we buy shoes that are stylish, we make sure they’re comfortable. Same with suits. Maybe if you wear a tie, then after a day’s work you’re ready to loosen it, but that’s it.

    What’s the reason to women’s slavish devotion to uncomfortable clothes? Is there really that big a social gap between the first and second categories, that if they’re a certain level professionally or socially the second category simply won’t do?

  3. SFG says:

    Unfortunately since men never wear dresses you can’t tell if it’s gender-conformity or dressed-up-ness that’s at play here. I’d be willing to bet men in suits get treated better than men in jeans and sneakers too.

    Good point, though.

  4. logtar says:

    I think I addressed one aspect of these here… I think its true.

  5. trumwill says:

    Peter, I’m actually a little bit curious about something. I think that you have in the past referred to the weight of the SCA’s as excessive. Am I recalling correctly? What’s interesting to me is that very, very few “alpha male” types I know are all that overweight. Anyway, I suspect that you’re right that a SCA in bluejeans is still a jerk… but certain people are attracted and driven into certain types of jobs and it’s not surprising that the clothing would reflect that.

    Barry, that’s a big enough subject for its own post. I think that women are expected to sacrifice more to look good. I suspect it has something to do with the need to exclude people as many people as possible. If you’re a woman that is extremely interested in fashion, gearing fashion away from comfort is a good way to make sure that what you do is not so frequently replicated. I suspect the same thing about some clothes that draw attention to any excess weight that exists. Pushing these fashions is something that thin women can do to exclude not-overweight-but-not-bony girls. Just a theory.

    SFG, I suspect it’s both the level of formality of the attire as well as gender conformity. As Logtar points out with his story, men are more likely to be treated better if they’re not wearing jeans, but I think that since people expect more of women in terms of personal appearance, a woman that seems to put no more thought into it gets more of a shaft. On the other hand, if she dresses very nicely, more people are likely to notice and say something than if a guy does the same. That’s my thought, anyway.

    Logtar, I don’t endorse bad service under any circumstances (except loss prevention), so it’s unfortunate the guy treated you as badly as he did. On the other hand, I do wonder if race wasn’t a part of it. By going into the store wearing regular shirt and jeans you might have fit into a stereotype that I wouldn’t have wearing the same. When you went in the second time with the suit, you didn’t fit that stereotype and thus got more respect.

  6. Peter says:

    Peter, I’m actually a little bit curious about something. I think that you have in the past referred to the weight of the SCA’s as excessive. Am I recalling correctly? What’s interesting to me is that very, very few “alpha male” types I know are all that overweight. Anyway, I suspect that you’re right that a SCA in bluejeans is still a jerk… but certain people are attracted and driven into certain types of jobs and it’s not surprising that the clothing would reflect that.

    It’s not that the SCA’s are obese, although some are. What’s more common is for them to be soft – not so much fat as pudgy, with zero muscle tone. Quite a few of them, I somehow can sense, are the sort of guys who were quite trim and fit in their younger years, possibly athletes in high school or college, but who more or less went to seed after age 30 or so. I probably wouldn’t notice their sizes very much if it weren’t for the obscenely tiny seats on the new M-7 cars. They’re totally inadequate for the people of today.

  7. Spungen says:

    Wait, so Logtar went into a cell phone store… and got the cold shoulder for looking Hispanic?

    Next did he go to Alberto’s Tacos for lunch and get the cold shoulder there, too?

    The Midwest seems to work a lot differently than in southern California. Here, everyone working in the cell phone store would probably be Hispanic, and so many of the customers. In whatever city he was in.

    Plus, people dress much more casually here. Generally a person won’t be discriminated against for being casual, unless they’re actually dirty. A person in jeans with a goatee could be a contractor, or a Hollywood douchebag, or a Manhattan Beach brat. You just can’t tell at first glance.

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