Band members at Mayne High School were expected to wear a Mayne Mustangs Band shirt on gameday or before they were about to leave for a tournament or something like that. It was a pretty simple shirt with the Mustang logo on the left breast and the words Mustang Band written in a circle. For the most part the band members hated it. It singled them out as band people. A quarter of the school would be wearing the same damn shirt. Almost nobody was caught dead in one unless they had to wear it.

I can’t remember how I got a hold of one, but somehow I did. I had it in my regular shirt rotation and wore it quite frequently. People would periodically ask why I wore it or express surprise that I was in band because they’d never seen me before. When I explained that I wasn’t in band but that I liked navy blue and red and breast-logos shirts, I’d usually get a “cool”. The fact that I wasn’t in band made my wearing the shirt okay. Kinda cool, even. In the end I probably got more compliments on that shirt than any other shirt that I wore.

A while back, in response to something that I wrote a while back, Bob said:

You can put the Trumwill in Skidz, but you can’t take the slacks off of the Trumwill. Those things that identify us as losers aren’t the same things that cause us to be losers. Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate this difference though. Pick-up guides focus on how to *display* high social value. They list attributes and tell you to do those things. Identify those people; watch them; do what they do. Fake it till you make it. (I’m sure there are some exceptions to this, but this seems to be a dominant theme.)

That is of course true. Often true, though is that context matters a great deal. For a mohawk to make a statement, it needs to be rare. My brother has a freckle on his ear where a piercing would be and when he was young he got a lot of looks because it appeared that his ear was pierced. Today, of course, a pierced ear is nothing. Doing the same thing carries a different meaning in a different context. It’s all contextual.

That’s one reason why it’s different when a popular kid wears something dorky than when a dorky kid does the same. For the former, it is adding an element of unpredictability or irony, whereas for the latter it’s simply reinforcing the existing negative perception. A cool kid wearing cool things reinforces positive perceptions about him whereas a dorky kid doing the same is adding an element of desperation and it just totally reeks of effort, which is (or was when I was young) a huge no-no.

This of course boxes the lower high school social classes into their station. Though it’s a risk to liken the man that won the popular vote to become the President of the United States as an outcast, I nonetheless have come to call this The Second Al Gore Dilemma. In 2000, Al Gore was in the position that he could either accept the perception of him being a square with edges made entirely of dull or he could try to change that and then most odiously reeking of effort. According to many in person Gore is a very warm and personable guy but he was effectively prevented from conveying that by popular perceptions.

The second aspect that makes it extremely difficult for lower people to become upper people simply by dressing the part is that there are all sorts of minutiae (if it’s even small, sometimes it’s huge) that someone that is not more intimately familiar with fashion does not know and that will frequently reveal him or her to be someone on the outside desperately looking in, which is about the only thing worse than someone simply slumming it on the outside.

As I was gradually making my way through school baseball caps and football jerseys were going the cycle from Cool to Standard to Banned. What’s to know about wearing a baseball cap? Well, for starters you have to get one of those expensive $20 official MLB caps instead of one of those with the weaved backs. I didn’t realize this and instead wore a Cane Buddies junior cap for the local Colosse Canes if I was wearing an MLB cap at all (and of course I wore it straight rather than cocked to the side). Likewise, my “jersey” wasn’t a jersey so much as it was a simple cotton fake jersey thing (and for the wrong team, to boot) and lo and behold it got me know headway on the popularity front. When I was in college, blue collar gas station shirts with foreign names on them like Habib or Ernesto were all the rage… but it was a no-no to tuck in your shirt as I always did. Being in college I was too old to care and I liked the shirts for a different reason (3 for $1! Relentlessly casual!), but had I been in junior high at the time it was devastating.

As a general principle, if the rules don’t sufficiently favor the haves over the have-nots new rules will be devised to close any loopholes. By the time people like me get caught up on a fashion it’s already on its way out. By the time lower class people can afford to move into a neighborhood the wealthier people are moving out. When a fat girl can look good in something the fashionistas will go out of their way to find something that only the thinnest 1/2 of 1% look good in and it will be the next big thing.


Category: School

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6 Responses to The Second Al Gore Dilemma

  1. Linus says:

    …so why even try? Do what makes YOU happy, and don’t worry about what everyone else thinks. The best way to look good/be popular/be happy is to be yourself and quit trying so damned hard.

    (this isn’t directed specifically at Trumwill, just to the world at large)

  2. Peter says:

    There must be some sort of “default” fashion for young people, something that’s not trendy but not dorky either.

  3. Barry says:

    I think there are a lot of clothing choices out there that are fairly neutral and would be perfectly fine for kids to wear but a lot of parents knuckle under to their kids’ whining about how they’ll just DIE and be TOTAL LOSERS if they don’t wear such and such. And it’s mostly the parents’ fault for not instilling the ability to resist that kind of peer pressures in their kids at a young age.

    Admittedly, growing up in the 80’s was different than growing up in the 2000’s but there were fashion trends and fashion rules and it could be difficult – but looking back, there was not a terribly large difference between what I and my circle of friends wore to school (ranging from slightly nerdy to slightly cool – even the females, and nice looking ones at that) and what the coolest kids wore. For kids there’s such an attention to the minutae, like when Will mentions the specific style of baseball hat or whether the shirt was tucked in or not – that fades with time and perspective.

    Now, what’s great for me as a parent is the private school my kids attend (upcoming 7th and 4th graders) require uniforms. So there’s ZERO worries about fashion competition. Kids are forced to express their individuality and creativity, not through clothes but through personality and individual achievement.

  4. trumwill says:

    Linus is right to an extent. Doing things for others is often pretty transparent (as I think it probably was in my case). I think that there are limits, though. For instance, I never would have taken a shower for myself… that was something that had to be for others :).

    I think that Peter’s got the right idea. It’s important not to where things that are potentially alienating, but there are a lot of “neutral” things that one can wear that will at least mitigate damage without providing ammunition to the enemy.

  5. trumwill says:

    Barry, I think you’re a little bit older than I am, but I’m closer to your age than your kids (I think) and unless something wildly changed between when you were growing up and when I was, fashion mattered as much then as it did now, I think.

    It varies a lot from school to school. We think of such snobbery as being the province of the wealthy though it was far worse in my working class middle school than my snobby high school. That might have had as much to do with age and maturity as anything else (high school things like cars and having money to go out and do things mattered more), but I don’t think that’s entirely it.

    My wife went to a school (I think it was Catholic school, though it may have been public high school) with uniforms and claims that things weren’t as different as one might imagine because things like bracelets took on more importance, but I have to think that it helped somewhat since there were less areas of distinction. Anyone else have experience with school uniforms that would care to chime in?

  6. trumwill says:

    This all reminds me of the great Ben Folds song “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You”:

    Smile like you’ve got nothing to prove
    No matter what you might do
    There’s always someone out there cooler than you
    I know that’s hard to believe
    but there are people you meet
    They’re into something that’s too big to be
    expressed through their clothes {snip}

    Life is wonderful, life is beautiful
    We’re all children of one big universe
    So you don’t have to be a chump

    After I explain away the cursewords in the song, it’s one I will play loud and often if I have any children :).

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