Dressing Up For Freedom

Imagine Wearing a Suit to a Protest March

by Anne Killpack

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On Tuesday, President Bush opened his State of the Union speech with a reference to the death that morning of Coretta Scott King, civil rights activist. Before his speech began, two people were asked to leave the gallery because they wore T-shirts containing “political messages” — one was Cindy Sheehan, an anti-war activist; the other the wife of a senator whose shirt said “Support Our Troops”.

“Don’t judge anybody by their dress, even though it’s a form of personal expression — but don’t trust anybody in a suit!”

Earlier that day, I’d been on a web crawl and ran across a trove of images of civil rights leaders; their arrest photographs taken after the famous Alabama marches. While taken in the mid to late sixties, and in an economically depressed era, especially for the blacks who made up most of the marchers — with a few rare exceptions, every one was dressed in a formal suit or Sunday best. Those few exceptions looked to be men who’d been working at hard labor the same day, and even these men wore button-down denim shirts or hats, looking serious and proud.

I compared these images to the last few protest marches which I’ve seen in my town. T-shirts and shorts, mostly, jeans and rips and dirt. A bunch of hippies. Do these people even have jobs? This looks like a party, or a picnic. Are they taking this seriously? What are we marching about again? I see six different signs and a dozen different T-shirts.

Now picture that same column of people coming down the street in suits and ties, singing “Give Peace a Chance” or “We Shall Overcome”, marching proudly in neat rows.

Who looks more dedicated? Which group do you take more seriously?

My generation may have been the last to be exposed to formal wear for occasions other than job interviews and the prom, and even those bastions are slipping; many of my peers have no concept of how to dress for a formal occasion, and more to my point, all too many of them do not understand why they should do so.

It’s about respect.

The last few generations got some sort of hippie mindset that somehow meant “don’t judge anybody by their dress, even though it’s a form of personal expression — but don’t trust anybody in a suit.” The concept of dressing respectfully — to show respect — is dying out.

Women wear white to other women’s weddings, people wear bright casual clothes to somber funerals, “casual Friday” at work has become “business casual all week, Hawaiian shirts on Fridays”, and way too many people show up to worship — going to visit their God, who you’d think would merit some respect — in the same track pants and message T-shirt they wear to the gym.

This isn’t showing respect. Showing respect requires that you put some effort into it. Clean clothes, your good clothes. Whether it’s more appropriate to go visit your particular deities in a suit or a slinky dress, black or neon green, is up to them — but it’s up to you to make some effort.

Do you want to be taken seriously in the halls of Congress? Don’t wear a T-shirt. I don’t care how important its message is, what it’s saying is “I’m a slob”. If your message can’t be reduced to a lapel pin, how strong a message is it?

That lapel pin? The AIDS ribbon. A “Free Mandela” pin. The flag of your cause. The American flag. Upside down, if you must — and believe me, to people who matter, that one may get you more notice than a T-shirt.

I support your right to wear T-shirts of all sorts. I’m a card-carrying ACLU member who supports teenagers not being thrown out of their schools for wearing political T-shirts — to one point.

If your message canít be reduced to a lapel pin, how strong a message is it?

If there’s a dress code, then you should abide by it. If your school rules say “No message shirts”, then you can try and fight for censorship grounds, but arguing that you shouldn’t get suspended for breaking the rules is a bit stupid. If a dress code is in some way discriminatory — not allowing religious wear like headscarves or certain jewelry — then it’s not cool. Financially discriminatory isn’t good either.

But of everyone reading this, there are maybe two or three of you who couldn’t go to a Goodwill right now and pick up a tolerable interview suit for under twenty bucks. Those few who can’t are probably hard-to-fit sizes. The rest of you are just lousy shoppers, and should go back again with somebody who can help you.

Every single one of you should own at least one tolerable set of formal clothes to wear for occasions on which you should be showing respect — funerals, weddings, religious occasions, and petitioning for jobs or political favors.

Why Congress doesn’t have a dress code installed, I don’t know — it would help solve these problems if the invitations simply said “Please dress appropriately; no T-shirts, jeans, athletic wear, et cetera”. Then the Secret Service doesn’t have to make political judgment calls, just knowing the difference between a T-shirt and a blouse. (Also: if it vaguely resembles a T-shirt in fabric and construction, but is a subdued color and does not bear any text, and is not faded, laundry-marked, dirty, or wrinkled, I don’t care. It’s a shirt, and especially if it’s under a blazer, I don’t give a damn. I’m talking about the obvious message-laden T-shirt with text on it.)

It’s very difficult to get any respect if you don’t show any.

Let’s think about that Selma march again. How hot is it in Alabama? We’re talking about people with very few dollars to spare, marching in their one good suit knowing that they’ll have to hand-wash or dry-clean the thing, and probably getting blisters from their good shoes. And knowing that the odds of them getting hit by a rotten vegetable, a water cannon, or an angry fist are high.

It’s that important to them.

Freedom is worth dressing up for.

Anne Killpack has been a surly punk for over a decade now, with her occasional forays into activism only serving to make her even more surly. She lives in San Francisco with her boyfriend and a suspicious lack of cats, dogs, parakeets, snakes, lizards or other animals, which will make it hard for her to fulfill her dream of being a “crazy old cat lady” when she gets older.