Why Fashion Follows Economic Power
This season, power is your must-have accessoryGareth Cattermole / Getty Politics Features Donald Trump
This is the summer of revising fashion trends, we are told. The laws of enforceable style are being revised. According to Vanessa Friedman of the Times, the ongoing dress code controversies are a proxy battles for the larger questions of our society, what she calls “the continuing opus of dress code in the late twenty-teens.”
Fashion is a pure outline of culture: what’s in, what’s out, what’s fashionable, what’s unacceptable—it’s an instructive way of discussing how culture works. And Friedman is part-right: a code governs our days, but it is not the laws of fashion that mogul over us. Since Peter the Great ordered his nobles to cut their beards (to appear more Western) the influential have sworn that culture is the great orderer of human life. Change the culture—change fashion—and you change everything. That’s the theory. But the dress code is a representation of power, not the cause. The people who speak of fashion as an arbiter of influence miss the point. They believe symbolic performance is power. It is not. Economics is.
THE CODE ABIDES
The latest plot twist is twofold. On the one hand, the L.P.G.A. has issued much more stringent guidelines that prohibit golfers from wearing shirts with “plunging necklines,” too-short skirts or skirts, or racerback tops without collars, according to a report in Golf Digest. On the other, the House of Representatives has come under fire because, said CBS News, female reporters were being turned away from the speaker’s lobby — the area outside the House chamber where lawmakers and reporters gather — for wearing sleeveless dresses or open-toe sandals. In both cases, social media uproar ensued.
Friedman goes on to dissect the hypocrisy and inanity of the arbitrary nature of dress codes, “How can the sergeant-at-arms, the chief law enforcement and protocol officer of the House, deem such garments inappropriate” when the First Lady and the President’s daughter wear them? Friedman describes “a dress code revolt” which has been erupting over the “last several years.” Friedman specifically cites the ban on airplane employee leggings, the “male skirt rebellion,” and several other incidents: the case of the woman whose flat shoes at work led to a Parliamentary committee, and the curious case of Kansas State Senator Holmes who denounced women who wore low-cut necklines and miniskirts.
We see this everywhere. In Saudi Arabia, a woman was detained for wearing a miniskirt in a social media video. According to CNN:
The woman, who has been questioned by Riyadh police, told them that “the viral videos were published by an account attributed to her without her knowledge,” according to the statement. The statement adds that the woman’s case has been referred to the general prosecution department in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. On Sunday, the spokesperson for the Presidency of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — also known as the religious police — said the group was monitoring the issue and taking the “necessary steps” to address a viral video depicting a “girl in offensive clothing.” … Many have jumped to the woman’s defense. Saudi women’s rights Twitter activist Fatima al-Issa wrote, “If she were Western, they would have praised her waist and her enchanting eyes, but because she’s Saudi they call for her to be tried!”
The obsession with culture as central to power is a fixation shared by centrists and conservatives alike. Every time a centrist brings up Fearless Girl as a performative talisman, they are invoking the mystical agency that cultural symbols are supposed to have. Alt-right Twitter is filled with clotted-together man-shapes made of resentment and pale yeast. They seem to spend most of their energy engaging in liberal-triggering acts: dunking themselves in tubs of blood or drinking milk on camera, or God knows what else. These displays effect the world as much as the cast of Frasier currently controls the black market: not at all.
The center-left has long performed before this altar. What has changed is that the right has a new theory about how politics works. It is summarized by Andrew Breitbart’s dictum “Politics is downstream from culture.” Hollywood Steve Bannon adopted it as his mantra. Lawrence Meyers, writing for noted fantasy site Breitbart News, said in 2011 that
The first time I heard the phrase, “Politics is downstream from culture”, I had no idea what it meant. After figuring it out, and explaining it to a few Conservatives, they dismissed the concept. The truth, however, is that it may be one of the most important phrases of the New Media Age, and it’s vital that people understand it. … Culture influences politics, and in ways the Left has understood for a long time. The Right has sat idly by, as they did with higher education, and let an ideological movement take over one of the most important aspects of American society.
THE STATUTE OF DAVID
Nobody is more enthralled with the idea of culture-as-power than conservative word-sayer David Brooks. As the podcast Chapo Trap House has pointed out, Brooks has a singular obsession: the glory of upper-middle-class values—and, more importantly, how he can use these bougie signifiers to hammer them poors. It’s the first thing he thinks about when he rises from his Egyptian-cotton bed to when he falls asleep dreaming of St. Barts. He wrote a whole book about it, Bobos in Paradise.
Brooks is not alone in this; he is merely the most prominent member of a team of bowtied conservatives who write pieces about how rock and roll is secretly Reaganic. They get the world backwards. They believe in Breitbart’s downstream mantra. Brooks’ faith tells him fashion—behaviors—dictates everything, including economics. In other words, the rich are rich because they act rich, not because they control more economic power. Scan any Brooks column, and it’s the same old song. From his column on July 18th:
For example, in his surveys of French taste, Bourdieu found that manual laborers liked Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” but didn’t like Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” People who lived in academic communities, on the other hand, liked the latter but not the former. … Taste overlaps with social position; taste classifies the classifier.
In his marvelously awful sandwich shop piece on July 11:
To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality. The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.
“It’s not really the prices.” Dear Lord. In his Comey article on the 9th:
The third important lesson of the hearing is that Donald Trump is characterologically at war with the norms and practices of good government. Comey emerged as a superb institutionalist, a man who believes we are a nation of laws.
Brooks never gets it. As numerous commenters have pointed out, Brooks’ characters—and they are that—operate in world where economic factors never seem to exist. On June 23, he managed to write about young people without directly discussing the hideous New Economy:
People in their 20s seem to be compelled to bounce around more, popping up here and there, quantumlike, with different jobs, living arrangements and partners while hoping that all these diverse experiences magically add up to something. Naturally enough, their descriptions of their lives are rife with uncertainty and anxiety. Many young adults describe a familiar pattern. They try something out but soon feel trapped.
SAY YES TO THE DRESS
Might they feel anxious, or have “different jobs” because there are no factories, fewer good jobs, and grinding student debt? Imagine there’s a Martian who can only see soccer balls but not the human beings kicking then. Then ask him to describe a soccer match. That’s how Brooks writes.
Brooks and his crowd believe culture decides economics. It makes sense that modern conservatism follows this doctrine. It allows them to engage in their two favorite practices: shaming the weak, and not challenging capital. If culture is the governor of social life—if being rich and successful was just a matter of aping your betters and wearing the right clothes—that would show that economic injustice was a pipe dream.
In the real world, economics largely dictates culture, not the other way around. Always has, always will. Economics is scarcity which is control which is power. Power flows from the control of resources. Conservatives are agents of the status quo, and so the machine of power is largely invisible to them, just as oppression is not their direct concern.
The dichotomy of cultural explanation versus economic reality can be glimpsed in every corner. Bloomberg published an article bewailing the declining status of the Harley-Davidson brand among its base—the older, conservative biker audience: “For a rookie rider who knows little about motorcycles, what a brand represents mechanically may matter less than what it means culturally.” That is, the author ties the decline of Harley to culture. But if the writer had scrolled down the same page I did, he would have seen the reason: Harley “is cutting workers as younger American consumers buy fewer bikes than baby boomers.” It’s almost as if there was something stopping millennials from having, and spending money.
THE TIES THAT BIND
Friedman’s feature is concerned, mildly, with the questions of what a dress code is, and who demands it. But this confuses the understanding of how dress codes work, and how culture works in relation to power. In Friedman’s story, it’s instructive that the instigators of change are two elite women: Ivanka and Melania.
That is how it works. Dress codes exist because institutions have concentrated might. This influence shoots out, issues its edicts, extends outwards, like a bridge from mainland to island. These establishments order how the rest of the world chooses to dress. Dress for success? Please. Success dictates dress. “Don’t you know about the new fashion honey?” Billy Joel once asked us, “All you need are looks and a whole lotta money.” The philosopher was too pessimistic: looks are not really required.
Why does the dress code of the people’s house matter? Why should any Speaker of the House have a single solitary say in how women dress? Why, because Congress puts a wall between itself and the citizens. It is the standard of lobbyists and attorneys who dictate the dress code, not ordinary people.
There is no logical reason why a man in faded overalls shouldn’t be able to visit the Congress that he, in theory, owns. But of course, economics dictates that ordinary people be barred from official places, as much as possible. The men in suits and ties are the people who can afford Congressmen, and so they dictate which clothing is used when courting the Legislature. Why is a woman hassled for dressing in a short skirt? Because a backwards, reactionary regime of addled fundamentalists reigns in Riyadh; they push a blinkered version of Islam to distract from their own corruption.
Why do they rule? Because they control the petroleum, and because we helped put them there. Why does Parliament care about ties in their Commons or women’s shoes at work? Because economic power belonged to property owners, who had very settled ideas about what women could and could not wear. Absolutely no law of efficiency dictates that airline employees cannot wear leggings—nothing except the executive suite. In every case, fashion is downstream from economics. And if the LPGA cared in the least about decency and women, they never would have held their Open on the golf course of famous sex-predator Donald Trump. Economic power is the only code which matters, and these institutions dress to please.