The Code that Can't be Broken

Economist Tyler Cowen’s recent book The Complacent Class describes, and at times laments, stasis in American life. Among a litany of symptoms, he includes this trenchant observation:

I also observe an essentially calm and soothing aesthetic in how people dress. Some of the stasis in American mobility has come - counterintuitively - through American individualism, American comfort, and, believe it or not, its increasingly casual culture....The less strict the dress code, in fact the harder it is to look good and to fit in, and that disadvantages those who are not from well-educated and successful backgrounds.

That is, not everyone has the confidence and ingenuity to put together an outfit like Niyi Okuboyejo of Post-Imperial wears in the picture above. Most guys would rather everybody in the office wear the same grey flannel suit, so that then if they can afford one, they can wear it all the way up to the corner office. With more free choice in dress, those who are more familiar with the social language of elites are better able to communicate through those choices, particularly to other elites, to the detriment of those unfamiliar with this language. Seeming democratization of dress leads paradoxically to more stratification. One more reason to hate business casual.

By this same logic, the suit has often been portrayed as a democratizing garment - as fashion’s great equalizer, overthrowing the gluttonous tyranny of jeweled velvet robes and buckled pumps of 18th century royalty. Thus the 1876 guide The Gentleman’s Art of Dressing With Economy proclaims to “consider it an advantage that prima facie all should appear equal, and entitled to class themselves as gentlemen, so far as outward and visible signs may go.” 

But the suit’s seeming uniformity only serves to make differences all the more meaningful for the cognoscenti. These differences aren’t just for aesthetic appreciation - a tailor that produces a particularly fine lapel roll, say - but also for social signaling. Thus all sorts of arcane rules about which buttons should be fastened when, which patterns are permissible on which occasions, and so on. 

If high-status types wear expensive jewels, it’s easy to see how the proles are prevented from aping them. But how do the rules of suit-wearing still signal status when anybody could follow them and “appear equal,” as The Gentleman’s Art suggests? But that’s exactly why the rules are so numerous and so silly - you couldn’t know them by guessing; it’s only by spending a lot of time in high society that you would ever know them all. Those outside of that set can then be easily identified by their ignorance of the rules. 

At a certain point these rules become arcane enough that the few people who know them pass on from being a privileged elite to being recondite curiosities. In the United States we mostly passed that era long ago, and have now moved on to signaling through sneaker brands and other demonstrations of stealth wealth. But the instinct is irrepressible. Even in the face of the strictest dress codes, humans find ways to establish a visual language that gives these sort of hints to the people who know to look for them, which of course are exactly the people you want finding them. 

Returning to a stricter code of suit-wearing would not, therefore, be the end of elite privilege. The righteous war against polos and khakis must instead recruit other motivations. 

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