Last year I worked for several months for a very corporate organisation that was one of the most conservative places I have ever worked. One of the most unusual aspects of working there for me was the sartorial aesthetics and the significant differences between women and men.

Women wore a diverse range of clothing that I can describe as: traditional corporate (blue and grey, plain or pinstripe skirt or trouser suit, white or pastel shirt), modern corporate (suits and shirts in fashionable colours and more diverse fabrics), smart casual (untucked and/or collarless tops, cardigans etc) and contemporary fashion (bold colour, asymmetric lines, diverse shapes, cuts and fabrics).

In contrast, men overwhelmingly wore only traditional corporate with a few rare exclusions (the occasional pair of dark jeans on casual Friday, white or pastel, plain or pinstripe, shirt still firmly tucked in). I was often the only man in the building I saw wearing red, dark blue, dark green, purple or black shirts.

After a few weeks I determined that the (officially undefined) dress code allowed for  quite diverse sartorial expression (judging by how my women colleagues dressed) and consequently I began to wear my shirts without tucking them in. I was again the only man in the building (Monday to Thursday) walking around without their shirt tucked into their trousers. It was common for women to not tuck their shirts in, so I followed their lead.

Male fashion in the corporate world has barely changed in over a century. The suit, tucked in shirt and tie is a uniform and a costume that symbolises a performance of submission to corporate capitalism and an anachronistic masculinity that has no relevance to the contemporary world.

It seems to me that the arch conservatism of male dress is enforced by men and women. Private school rich wanker types have obviously grown used to the corporate costume from an early age (I wore jeans to high school) and have no wish to change in middle age, or to allow other men to be different. Women also commonly seem to approve of the powerful image of the man in a suit, and to reject as less powerful men who do not meet this image.

Being different is to be a threat to the status quo. Take this recent example. Two men were ejected by security from the members pavilion at Flemington racetrack for wearing red and pink jackets. They are claiming discrimination based on their homosexuality. This may be valid, but from my point of view their sexuality was only inferred by the goons, not proven.

In reality, these men were ejected for being flamboyant and extroverted in their fashion choices, in other words men who have abandoned and thus betrayed the codes of traditional (understated) masculinity. Flamboyant campness is routinely assumed to automatically infer homosexuality, but this is lazy thinking. Flamboyance, camp and gayness are distinct things.

The members pavilion at Flemington racetrack may be private property where the owners can be as discriminatory as they like, but their opinions and behaviour are typical of many other places in society, including places of employment, where very different rules apply.

It seemed extremely ironic to me that, in a place that had an internal queer network and extensive EEO policies, that I should also find recent policy documents (seemingly not defined as official) on the intranet that banned men from wearing earrings and breaching other petty aesthetic barriers.

Having wandered along Savile Row in London recently drooling over some of the tailoring, particularly the amazing Ozwald Boateng, it occurred to me that wearing some of the colourful current Boateng collection would get you kicked out of the members pavilion at Flemington racetrack.

So the very best of men’s fashion on Savile Row is not good enough for the goons as Flemington? What petty backward archaic fuckwits. You don’t have the right to control and limit my masculinity by defining what I wear.

I care not for your sartorial hegemony

13 thoughts on “I care not for your sartorial hegemony

  • 1 December 2011 at 7:29 am
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    Ozwald Boateng and men “being different” ? Totally fabulous, necessary, and a pleasure to experience. More please!

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  • 1 December 2011 at 9:44 am
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    Very interesting article Brian. I work in a modern corporate environment where us females explore many different styles, colours etc (still being professional of course) whereby the men are day to day in the same navy/black/grey suit. Some days to be honest I envy that the males don’t get judged instantly on if there outfit is appropriate or in the same taste as others. At 24, if I wore a plain grey suit everything would be picked apart from the tailoring, shoe choice, to whether i was a “boring”person. I don’t believe men have the same scrutiny.

    In regards to the Flemington issue it states that VRC members and their guests (amoung numerous rules for both men and women) are prohibited to wear “Safari suits, bright coloured suits, tracksuits.” As much as I think these rules are ridiculous in modern day society, sexuality has nothing to do with it.

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  • 2 December 2011 at 8:18 am
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    According to the VRC members dress regulations, the wearing of kilts, cravats and brightly coloured suits (amongst other things) by gentlemen is unacceptable. The ladies section does not mention colour at all.

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    • 2 December 2011 at 9:36 am
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      Just as I argued, this is sexual discrimination. And anti-Scottish as well.

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  • 3 December 2011 at 11:44 am
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    This is a very interesting post :)

    I’m not a fan of “dress codes”, as I believe that one should be free to wear whatever one chooses, with the appropriateness of dress to be determined by the wearer, not rules or organisations. Having said that, I can understand how, in some organisations, certain dress is expected particularly when working with external clients. The reality is that people form impressions based on external appearances, and the company may wish to convey a certain image of professionalism to clients (would you ever buy a suit from a salesperson who was dressed in shorts and thongs?). The VRC, however, and the likes of the MCC have no such excuse.

    I notice that traditional corporates and private clubs are not the only ones to have this sartorial hegemony; for example, goths abide by a dress code too. I wonder what the reaction would be if someone walked into a goth club with white oxford cloth button-downs and Nantucket red pants. If they enjoy and rocked out to the music, would it matter?

    Just as I’m all for freedom of dress, I also believe in being able to judge the appropriateness of dress yourself. It’s about making an effort sometimes; if you’re going to the opera, why would you wear shorts? Know the rules first before you break them. Boeteng is first and foremost a Savile Row tailor, which allows him to inject irreverence into his designs and break or bend the rules of traditional tailoring.

    The bottom line is, there should not be any rules or hegemony with regards to dress; people should wear whatever they like without being discriminated against or ridiculed. Even one of the bastions of conservative dress, the East Coast prep/Ivy League style, has the concept of “Go to Hell”, meaning I can wear what I want and you can go to Hell, resulting in all manner of multi-plaid madras jackets, brightly coloured clothes that burn your retina, and chinos with no break and showing ankle.

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  • 7 December 2011 at 5:50 pm
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    While a flamboyant person may well be productive, they can give the implication to some clients and their boss, that their mind is on the weekend or the autumn catalogue, instead of the account/contract/trade or whatever pays the bills. The suit says to everyone who sees you, “I came here to work, not to party”.

    If something as trivial as fashion is a deal-breaker, then the dress code has done its job by weeding out someone who was never prepared to give a little to get a little.

    Boss: “Can you run down stair and get some coffees for the board meeting?”
    Employee: “Not in this dress, bub; it’s Gucci, and anyway, it’s not in my job description”

    No thanks

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    • 7 December 2011 at 9:34 pm
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      When you say ‘person’ do you mean ‘man’? Why is it that women can be ‘flamboyant’ in the workplace and be admired for their style, but when men do the same they are viewed with suspicion? This is sexual discrimination, nothing more.

      It is illegal under federal EEO and anti-discrimination legislation for employers to have a sexually discriminatory uniform policy. Therefore, if a woman wears a brightly coloured shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, with no tie, and not tucked in, then by law men must be allowed to do the same.

      As an employer, would you refuse to send a woman to represent your company to clients you suspected were misogynists? Tell the (black) African manager not meet with the white South African company? Not send the lesbian to talk to the AFL club? These discriminatory actions are all illegal. Discriminating against men for not being bland and boring is no different.

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      • 8 December 2011 at 5:39 pm
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        You’re right about the double standard. A man can be castigated for his dress, a woman, less so. It’s this low standard, that keeps many women away from the big table, the important clients, and the board room. A woman who doesn’t dress serious, can only be assumed not to be so. There is a reason the CEO does not wear a spinning tie.

        Personally, I don’t assume White South Africans are racist, because I’m not a prejudiced bigot. I would happily send my black employee, provided he’s a Neville Bonner, not a Murrandoo Yanner. If I’m trying to close a deal with an AFL club, I wouldn’t send Wayne Swan, but I’d send Penny Wong any day. If I’m trying to win a contract with an activist organisation, I’d send Peter Garret and tell him to wear a Keffiyeh.

        It’s all about who’s right for the job, and that all comes down to the nature of the job at hand. Where real money is at stake, people generally want someone conservative and considered, rather than flamboyant. Just look at every treasurer Australia has ever had; there’s no designer stubble, no cravats, no purple velvet jump-suits; just dry crackers all round.

        Why throw away a contract or an election over an outfit? Those aren’t the actions of a considered, conservative person.

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        • 8 December 2011 at 5:44 pm
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          What makes you think that ‘conservative’ is the standard, the norm? This itself is a subjective opinion. The way in which the ‘conservative’ aesthetic is assumed by some to be an objective standard is intellectually and ethically bankrupt.

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          • 9 December 2011 at 12:12 pm
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            That conservative dress standard as the norm is a verifiable fact. For said verification, run a google image search for “business attire”, and you’ll find The same styles and colors over and over again. From airline pilots to hotel bell-boys, conservative dress is the actual, factual, bona-fide standard for serious business.

            If the bright colors and daring fabrics are more important than the contract or the company, then that is a huge cause for alarm. That sort of naked narcissism is rightly a deal breaker. Your partner wants to know you’re going to put them before the spring catalogue on your list of priorities. Anyone who intends to be successful in business needs to learn: it’s not all about you.

          • 9 December 2011 at 12:22 pm
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            You don’t appear to understand this discussion. I’m not denying the existence of the ‘conservative’ sartorial aesthetic. I’m rejecting the idea that it is the only reasonable or appropriate aesthetic for men. I’m also questioning the assumption of people like you that the ‘conservative’ aesthetic is the ‘natural’, ‘normal’ or default style for men. It is the costume of patriarchal corporate capitalism and there is nothing natural about it. Like all aesthetics it is a cultural construction that symbolises political power. It is designed as a measure to control men and enforce narrow and limited forms of masculinity.

  • 9 December 2011 at 11:27 am
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    “Women also commonly seem to approve of the powerful image of the man in a suit, and to reject as less powerful men who do not meet this image.”

    I absolutely agree with this – it is disquieting to see the degree to which most women are repelled by personal style in men (outside of acceptable templates such as the Mad Men look and the avant-rock, skinny tie aesthetic). Therefore, it is an unusual man who is willing to be expressive in a way which can’t be read as retro.

    Even though, as you mention, there are many more dress options for women in the workplace, I’d also note that it is particularly easy for women to pass as particular “types” through fashion: eg, a free spirit, sensual and womanly, or ironically buttoned-up. So there might be advantages to looking generic and unreadable.

    On a tangential note, you might also be interested in this post, which discusses girlie and cupcake culture. While the writer has lots of detractors, who claim that it’s ridiculous to equate girlie with vapid, you can hardly imagine a grown man in boy-shorts having his choices defended as personal style! http://julieklausner.tumblr.com/post/6331886267/dont-fear-the-dowager-a-valentine-to-maturity-an

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    • 9 December 2011 at 11:51 am
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      There are no multiple ‘types’ that men can conform to in the workplace. There is the ‘conservative’ look and there is everything else, and everything else is viewed as second best.

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