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George Will, who once upon a time long ago was capable of making truly thoughtful and important contributions to discussions over liberalism and conservatism in America, but who has, unfortunately, long since become comfortable simply defending the Republican party line, has deigned to weigh in on the matter of American dress styles. Specifically, our miserably unconservative (so he alleges) addiction to wearing blue jeans:

Denim is the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults….In their undifferentiated dress, children and their childish parents become undifferentiated audiences for juvenilized movies….Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy’s catechism of leveling — thou shalt not dress better than society’s most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism — of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste. Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances. But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.

As Front Porch Republic has itself hosted at least one serious consideration of American dress habits, you might think that Will’s jeremiad would go over well with this crowd. And perhaps it will–certainly those of us looking to preserve elements of localism in our lives usually want to preserve other deeply rooted standards as well. But then, at what point does a standard become “deeply rooted,” anyway? And when and to what degree is exalting one standard as mature, and another as infantile, sometimes simply a matter of protecting privilege…a particular, well, dare I say “cosmopolitan” privilege at that? As Jonathan Chait notes, Will is rather lacking in self-awareness here: a year ago, he was condemning Obama and the Democratic party for their “condescension toward [working] people and the supposedly coarse and vulgar country that pleases them”….and now he looks to those same people, and sniffily tells them to dress like Fred Astaire? Exactly what kind of conservatism (if any) does Will want?

To be sure, jeans (along with t-shirts and baseball caps worn backwards) can be a sign of slovenliness and collapse of appropriate social distinctions. But one can’t help but wonder from what bearings Will takes his distinctions from: he talks about Silicon Valley billionaires wearing jeans, indulging in “nostalgic and destructive agrarian longings,” yet he seems completely unaware of the fact that there are yet in America people who work in gardens, mow their lawns, feed their animals, fix their wooden siding, cut tree limbs, lay cable wiring, wash windows, and do hundreds of other jobs–and, in the midst of those jobs, sometimes have to run to Lowes for a PVC pipe coupling–for which wearing jeans is perfectly appropriate. Sometimes they even take their kids along to the mall with them when they pick the stuff up. For this, we deserve the condemnation of Edmund Burke?

I’m a college professor, and I’m proud to say that I never wear jeans to class–as a teacher, I have a place and a role, and I have decided that said place and role is best maintained by me wearing dress pants, a jacket, and a tie. But on my front porch, here in Wichita, KS, I wear jeans. They’re comfortable, and you can wash the BBQ sauce out of them. But since I sincerely doubt Will ever does his own laundry, he probably doesn’t know that.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks, Russell.

    I held my tongue during the “tie” discusssions, only because I wasn’t sure I had anything to contribute that someone else hadn’t said just as well; but this is a matter of no small import, I believe.

    On the one hand, as you suggest, Will is correct that a crude sort of leveling has beset our culture. Denim may well signify, in part, the “juvenilization” of Americans in general. Such a claim would benefit from looking beyond jeans, however, to the wild-eyed childish consumerism visible everywhere (especially in the homes of people who, for instance, are up to their eyes in debt but still own outsized televisions and myriad hand-gadgets to allow them to text vulgarities to their friends and colleagues . . . that sounds like a teenager I’m describing, but it seems a fair portrait of many adults). As the esteemed Mr. Sabin will no doubt offer with his vitupretive Tocquevillian precsision, our country has swiftly begun to resemble nothing so much as a suburban public high school, where citizens are reducible either to guidance counselors or students, to administrators or roving libidos with aspirations to go to business school.

    But Will really misses the mark in his particular attentions; he’s trying to be Leon Kass but without the understanding necessary to do so. Much like you, I believe it is “only appropriate” to dress in different contexts as one’s role in those contexts recommends. I wear a suit and tie to teach every day. But day to day, I wear jeans and would almost certainly be over dressed in a chalk-stripe three button.

    Your more stinging point is well taken, as well: Will is not the only faux-populist who pulls Republican. I remember John Ashcroft saying the NEA ought to give Garth Brooks grants, and not opera companies, since that’s what Americans want. Opera is hardly a high art form; when one feels comfortable painting it as the prize of rarified elitists, it testifies to that person’s juvenille taste rather than a mature common sense.

  2. This is the kind of discussion that can quickly turn into the deeply infuriating “cats are liberal, dogs are conservative,” “trucks are conservative, Priuses are liberal” “lattes are liberal, coffee is conservative,” “white wine is liberal, beer is conservative” insanity.
    Yet, it is undeniable that clothing does represent much about oneself. Social capital is created and maintained by the producers of intentional icons (and intensional icons) being adapted to one another. Clothing is a way of “speaking” to one another. As Millikan writes: “Speakers within a language community are, simply, adapted to an environment in which hearers are responding, sufficiently often, to the forms speakers produce in ways that reinforce these speaker productions. Correlatively, hearers in the community are, simply, adapted to conditions under which speakers, sufficiently often, produce these language forms in circumstances such that making conventional responses to them aids those hearers. (Language: A Biological Model, p. 57)”

    When the producers/wearers of an article of clothing are producing for those not adapted by culture to consume the meanings it results in a breakdown of social capital. And so ones choice of clothing certainly is a way of being a part of a community, of expressing attitude towards the activity you are engaged in, drawing attention to oneself, etc. See http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-diversity-destroys-social-capital.html

  3. Do you people have any idea how much dress slacks cost? I was in Brooks Brothers down in San Antonio last week and they had a two-for-one sale; buy one for $165 and get the next one free! The wife had to carry me outta the store.
    And, I ain’t buying ’em at Goodwill, though they’re only $3.95, on accounta you can never find the right size.
    Power to the people!

  4. I vituperate, therefor I spit. Denim tends to sop it up and dry more quickly and so I am a habitual wearer of this damned fine cotton garment. Not to mention the fact that if I were to show up on a muddy site in tasseled loafers and Brooks Brothers as Mr. Fox prudently points out, I’d both be and look stupid and display an uneconomic foolhardiness of conditions. However, when I go out to a show or a fine dining establishment or on the rare occasions I enter a church ….I gussy up and get uppity when the person in the seat adjacent is wearing the t shirt-sagging sweat pant ensemble.

    I think what is most important here besides what people dress in is when they dress in it. The ceremonial aspects of life have degenerated apace with popular literacy. People think comfort…aka near-slovenliness is paramount and that there really is no distinction between working in the garden, fetching a pipe elbow, going to an academic class, entering a house of worship, attending a concert or eating in a diner vs. a fine restaurant.

    Only such remnants as a funeral or a wedding are accorded a widespread recognition that dressing well is appropriate. Dress is a ceremonial expression. Ceremony provides both structure and hierarchy and hierarchy is a bona fide pleasure properly approached. It is the pursuit of the aficionado…a person who approaches existence as a form of expression rather than consigned fatalism between escapes. It is lso a form of public respect…respect for one’s self…respect or one’s fellow and respect for the agora.

    Again, labor…including the white collar type is a pejorative….a session filled with distaste and consigned resignation and we live for the weekend and so dressing “down” on Friday is an extension of what we would rather be doing: Leisure….aimless or structured leisure.

    It’s not the lack of standards of dress that we should be fretting about…this is just the vestments of the underlying problem. We have a lack of hierarchy…of commitment to style….of ceremony …of the patience and pleasures of a fine set of garments. Respect is something forced now in this most undiscriminating time. We worship physicality and speed…as de Tocqueville observed and this can be done in sweatpants.

  5. There is a definite tendency among the conservative establishment to
    prefer the English form of things, from clothing to pronunciation,
    on the dubious grounds that these things are older, therefore better.

    Most of those English dress items were originally designed for
    practicality in various forms of sport, from hunting to polo.
    So they aren’t really more formal, they’re just more fossilized.

    And most of the English pronunciations are actually *newer*
    than American. If you compare a London newspaper from 1750
    with a Boston newspaper from 1750, you’ll find the grammar and
    spelling is similar, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising
    is that the common 1750 forms are closer to modern American than
    to modern British. In fact Americans preserved the older grammar
    and spelling while the Brits changed.

  6. George Will has become comfortable defending the Republican party line? Utter nonsense. He is a voice that makes the party liners uncomfortable. You ought to read what he has written about people like George W. Bush and John McCain.

    That said, he went goofy when he criticized blue jeans. But it’s not as goofy as the idea the idea that he is an establishment Republican.

    I only read that first sentence, and no further. You may criticize Will without reading his articles, but I’ll go you one better and read your first sentence before criticizing yours.

  7. I am amazed at how quickly things degenerate into speculations of ignorance. For example, how could we know the gentleman hadn’t just come from his garden? How about the fact that he is appearing in a restaurant, if we are going to go about playing hypotheticals. We know that people wear jeans other than as a consequence of need because it is the cause they are most prevalently worn. That there are couples that can’t conceive doesn’t change that we live in a day and age where couples are choosing not to conceive in high numbers.

    As one working on reforming his American ways, I see our and my own slobiness everyday. Eating while not sitting at a table is one example. Another example is not seperating work time from leisure time. Simply because one had a workout 2 hours prior doesn’t mean one should be going around in sweats all day long.

  8. Damn skippy, Russell. I wear jeans essentially all the time – we have a very lax dress code here – and most of the people I know where jeans, and it’s just bloody foolish to invoke this sort of snobbery. It’s just asking for people to recite lines out of “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones (which is bad enough) – but it’s also just incredibly stupid. It’s one thing to lament skimpy dress in cold weather or vulgar t-shirts; or even to push for uniforms in school (something I support), but quite another to lament the very functional, comfortable garb that is denim pant-wear.

    My father, who is a dean at the college here, recently found khaki colored jeans, something I’d never heard of. Now he can sort of disguise the fact he’s wearing those most comfortable of pants…well, corduroy is pretty comfortable, too, I’ll admit, but a bit short on functionality!

  9. When you have nothing else to wear
    But cloth of gold and satins rare,
    For cloth of gold you cease to care,
    Up goes the price of shoddy.

    In short, whoever you may be,
    To this conclusion you’ll agree,
    When every one is somebodee,
    Then no one’s anybody!

    –Don Alhambra, The Gondoliers

    What you should take about is hats. Before 1960, no self-respecting man would be seen in public without a hat; after that, no one wore them. What happened? John Kennedy attended his own inauguration hat-less. The industry collapsed in a single day.

  10. Wow. I never intended or expected this relatively brief note of mine to elicit so many comments! If I had, I probably could have found more to say…

    James,

    When I can write a line as good as “roving libidos with aspirations to go to business school,” then I’ll know I’ve truly earned that Ph.D. I have hanging on the wall. Good show! And nice snarks about Will and John Ashcroft; I agree with you completely.

    Empedocles,

    When the producers/wearers of an article of clothing are producing for those not adapted by culture to consume the meanings it results in a breakdown of social capital. And so ones choice of clothing certainly is a way of being a part of a community, of expressing attitude towards the activity you are engaged in, drawing attention to oneself, etc.

    This is an interesting point, one that deserves greater elaboration. If Will’s criticism of denim hadn’t trafficked in lazy elitist sniffing, but had instead seriously investigated why so many people with white-collar jobs wear clothing which were designed for manual labor, he might have uncovered an interesting truth about our “agrarian longings,” rather than seeing such as a sign of debasement. We do dress, often anyway, in order to say something to others as well as ourselves; perhaps the appeal of blue jeans is actually a confused attempt to defy the pretentions of cosmopolitan style and Hollywood wealth, rather than an ironic embrace of such. Such are the sort of things that might be said about denim, any of which are more interesting that Will’s tired dismissals.

    D.W. Sabin,

    The ceremonial aspects of life have degenerated apace with popular literacy….It’s not the lack of standards of dress that we should be fretting about…this is just the vestments of the underlying problem. We have a lack of hierarchy…of commitment to style…of ceremony…of the patience and pleasures of a fine set of garments. Respect is something forced now in this most undiscriminating time.

    Excellent thoughts. The very best suit I own was given to me by an old Canadian friend who had outgrown it; he’d worked for some years as a salseman in men’s clothing at various shops, and he knew the importance of a well-made, well-cut, well-preserved outfit. This was probably at least partly an example of his English-Canadian patriotism, but during his years in America, he often commented that American men didn’t seem to understand the value of having a “Sunday best” suit, and wearing it when appropriate.

    Retiuclator,

    I’ve been reading Will since the early 80s, and long admired his writing. And, to be sure, he is still capable of making sharp comments which bite the hand that feeds him. But the GOP definitely feeds him, make no mistake. For all his thoughtful ruminations about Reagan’s and Bush’s and Bush II’s respective follies, he’s been consistently and firmly a supporter of the Republican party come election time year in and year out, for decades now.

    John and E.D. Kain,

    I’ve made a couple of attempts over the years to add hats to my wardrobe, with little success. (I’ve had even less success which getting my wife to wear hats; I’ve bought her about three over the past fifteen years, and three wearings is about all I’ve ever been blessed to observe.) Perhaps I (or we) just need a little sartorial counselling…

  11. You’ve got my agreement. I’d have to say that if you live a life where dressy slacks and shoes are the only clothes you need, maybe it’s time to get some dirt under your fingernails and see what life is like on the outside.

  12. Russell,

    I was reading George Will’s column today, and was reminded again about how wrong it was for you to claim that Will has “become comfortable simply defending the Republican party line.” Just because he tends to vote for Republicans does not make him comfortable simply defending the party line. The word comfortable is wrong. The word simply is wrong. The phrase “party line” is wrong.

    The defense you gave of your remarks was not a “but”. It helped make my point. “Thoughtful ruminations” are different from “simply defending the party line.”

    You expect him to vote Democrat once in a while just to show that he’s not just defending the party line? That wouldn’t be independent thinking. That would be letting other people control his thinking.

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