In Praise of Dandies

I bet you can guess where this is heading.

This Monday, The Wall Street Journal published a piece about a Cold War being fought in suburban homes across our fine country, a pitched battle between women who loathe cargo shorts and their husbands, who cling to them with a terrified and senseless urgency. In addition to being rich with comic potential, this piece apparently made some men verrrrrrrrrry grumpy.

Isn’t it cute how they felt the need to specify “male WSJ reader,” as if the gender of these correspondents could ever be in question?

While I am on record as finding their dismay ridiculous, I have to own, discussing the piece brought up some STRONG EMOTIONS for me as well. They relate to a particular awakening I had, a story which goes as follows: In college, I was talking with a well-meaning male friend I liked then, and still like now, who was an ace practitioner of what I’ve lovingly named “found object dressing” — wherein one combines (1) a top one plainly acquired for free (at a fun run, summer job, or from various and sundry t-shirt cannons), (2) pants surely purchased for one in bulk by one’s mother, (3) enormous white athletic sneakers (also likely purchased by same), and (4) then one winks and makes finger guns at oneself in the mirror, while mouthing “Tell me about it, stud” to one’s own reflection. I guess. To this friend I said, WHY, when all men need to distinguish themselves as well-dressed is three things — a button-down shirt, pants that fit, and shoes that are not the aesthetic equivalent of a 404 Error Not Found message — do so FEW take advantage and give themselves a comically big leg up in the heterosexual dating pool? He, budding economist that he was, cited “the fireworks principle,” which the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics explains thusly:

If an entrepreneur stages a fireworks show, people can watch the show from their windows or backyards…Even if the fireworks show is worth ten dollars to each person, no one will pay ten dollars to the entrepreneur. Each person will seek to ‘free-ride’ by allowing others to pay for the show, and then watch for free from his or her backyard.

In my friend’s eyes, because women could not exclude “free-riders” like him from passively benefiting from their attractiveness and general finery, there was no incentive for men to exert themselves when it came to dressing. In hoping for an equivalent effort to be made, women were those chump entrepreneurs, asking for their work to be valued even while they gave it away for free. AS YOU MIGHT GUESS, this PIECE OF INSIGHT made QUITE AN IMPACT ON ME.

I did not actually shove my friend BUT I WAS TEMPTED.

It’s a perspective that basically boils down to “WELL, since the Patriarchy is oppressing you ALREADY, I may as well just lay back and enjoy the free show.” Because, UNLIKE FIREWORKS, which are paid for by COMMON TAXES, the burden of being pretty all the time is not one shared equally amongst a whole township. It’s one each woman carries alone, often to her financial and emotional detriment! I’d like to say that, from that day forth, I never let a man whose clothing did not communicate VISIBLE EFFORT AND THOUGHT touch the hem of my (usually stylish) garments, but look. I’m a mostly straight woman. My romantic life to date is just one long series of grim compromises. BUT. It has made me really, really appreciative of men who make an effort, even when the end result is goofy at best

It may seem like a DRAMATIC OVERSTATEMENT, but I think dandyism, properly applied, is one way tiny way that straight, cis men can set aside or endanger a little of their privileged status. Putting effort into your appearance is showing an awareness that you exist as an object, not merely a subject. Your body is not a remote fortress from which you can gaze out on vistas undisturbed, but a building in a common city — you look out and others are free to look back in kind. As long as dressing to delight someone’s eye is considered un-masculine, doing so when society does not demand it of you is a gently radical act, and one I find really appealing.

Just because Christian is gay does not mean he cannot be your style icon!

So, straight men (mostly white, mostly middle-class), wear your cargo shorts, if you must. Not every garment needs to be stylish, or flattering. If you really want to engulf your haunches in the sartorial embodiment of the phrase “no homo,” please, be my guest.* Despite that scathing description, truly: if I already like you as an individual, I almost certainly won’t like you any less because of your allegiance to dumb paramilitary pants. But I do expect you to recognize, when you wear them, that dressing in reference chiefly to heteronormative conformity and personal comfort, with no regard for how frumpy it makes you appear, without ever fearing social or professional repercussions, is a privilege that very few people have. Your freedom from superficial concerns like “stylishness” is not evidence of your refined and logical mind, or your keen independence of spirit. It’s just another piece of evidence that, as John Scalzi once put it, you’re playing life on the lowest possible difficulty setting. When you wear them, even if you’ve convinced yourself that you’re communicating nothing, you’re actually saying — loud and clear — “I am privileged enough that I don’t have to care.” And while you can perform caring in LOTS of other great and meaningful ways, I hope more of you can learn to value the mere act of showing it by saying “Hey, look at me! Aren’t I handsome?” It doesn’t take a lot, and it really does make the world more fun and colorful.

*This is a great moment to note that the semiotics of cargo shorts — and nearly ALL garments that read “boring dad” — are complex, and therefore have a totally different impact when mixed with either female-presenting or gender non-conforming bodies. FASHION, like most things in our advanced capitalist society, is complicated!