Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Obama Dress Code

Today, while running and watching CNN there was an interview with the student body president of North Carolina Central University - Kent Williams Jr. While I could not find the interview, I was able to locate an article about Mr. Williams' dress code crusade. Mr. Williams was discussing his, I'll say, "mission" to clean up the student body by making them presentable. This "mission" in part emerged from an interview then Presidential candidate Barack Obama did with MTV where he noted that "brothers should pull up their pants". Now, I understand where this desire to have people pull up their pants is coming from. I recognize that wearing low-ridin' baggy jeans is not very professional and that in doing so individuals open themselves up to being judged as any number of things (i.e. thug, gangsta, etc.) not to mention the necessity to wear cute undies.

I found Mr. Williams to be very persuasive in his presentation of this idea - noting that he is not attempting to enforce a dress code, merely to bring the rules of "business professional" to his colleagues by handing out cards with dress rules such as not wearing one's pajamas to class, not wearing short skirts, covering up the cleavage when not in the clubs, and of course pulling up one's pants. His intentions are in many ways it seems to provide "rules" to enter the game - a game that is one fraught with issues related to race, class, gender, and sexuality.

However, as he was discussing, Mr. Williams made a rather interesting statement - noting that wearing clothes in such a manner shows a lack of self-respect. I found it rather odd, perhaps disturbing that in the attempt to clean up the image of fellow students, he had to do so by pathologizing, psychologizing the students...making it not possible that they are wearing these clothes because of the image they seek to produce, the image they want others to associate them with, or simply because such clothes are rather enjoyable to wear. While he is not trying to enforce a dress code, his language seems to provide no other option than to abide...for to not abide is to lack self-respect...when it seems that the lack of respect is on those who cannot simply imagine ways in which one's clothing is not solely related to their "mental state" and ability to respect themselves.

The notion of "respect" seemed rather persuasive in many discussions around the topic - seen in the article linked above and in President Obama's interview. What it is about clothes that provokes such anxiety and provokes individuals to feel disrepected because of what some "other" is wearing. Is the issue not about the respect, but about the desire for such individuals to fall in line and dress in a fashion that is "normal" and "normal" being linked with "respectful". One can think about the current fascination with President Obama's changing of the fashion in the oval office - making it much more casual in perhaps the same light. Is it disrepectful to the institution of the presidency to disrupt the norm of professional attire? I wouldn't think so, but then again, President Obama already, arguably, has earned a lot of respect and can "break" with the norms...

Of course, the issue that Mr. Williams brings about is not just about college students or what is worn in the oval office. One can look at dress codes in public and private K-12 schools and the ways in which discourse operates around these policies. I would argue in many ways such discourse is inevitably normalizing - seeking to produce students in a very limited way so that they are all "mentally healthy" and "self-respecting" according to those adults who are able to enforce such rules. Of course the joy then, is finding those students, those moments where subversion occurs and the dress code is utilized in perverse ways - perhaps Brittany's use of the "school girl uniform" is a recent incantation where the uniform comes to represent that which it intended to eliminate or minimize...