Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wearing the same thing every day

Check out this guy, always wearing the same grey T-shirt and charcoal hoodie. You don't need a facial recognition algorithm to know who he is.

It's Social Overlord Mark Zuckerberg, of course. (Captured by his nemesis, Google.) Recently Zuckerberg did a Q&A at Facebook headquarters and was asked why he always wears the same grey T-shirt. He answered: "I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how best to serve this community. […] I feel like I'm not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous."

I decided to blog about this, but as the blog post got more detailed I thought, "Why don't I actually pitch this as a feature story?" So I did… and you can read the rest of it over at Junkee. I'm glad they have a 'Style' section over there, so I can pitch these kinds of stories.

This has been one of my more popular stories lately. I'm surprised by the pageviews and the number of comments, and that it's got the biggest reach of anything I've posted on my Facebook page in the last three months. That said, the comments seem to have taken issue with the way I situate 'wearing the same thing every day' within a culture of technologised neoliberalism. Jeff Sparrow's essay on Soylent has been very influential in my thinking about this.

But of course there is the broader truism that anyone who actually uses the term 'neoliberalism' tends to do so suggesting it is a socially corrosive, structural phenomenon. Whereas those who might actually practise and enable neoliberalism rarely acknowledge it as a guiding philosophy at all, preferring to couch it as a climate of ideologically empty 'individual choice'.

To me, it seems obvious that much of tech culture's thinking about the body is instrumental – obsessed with what the body can be used to achieve, rather than how it looks or feels – and also can't be disentangled from the historic disparagement of the 'nerd body' and the way it's dressed.

Popular culture has created this category of the 'nerd' or 'geek' as someone who lives 'in his head' (the nerd is a historically male category) and so consequently is either incompetent or uninterested in the social and aesthetic aspects of dress. When I as much as raised the issue of gender and the way that 'being interested in clothes' is feminised and hence devalued, commenters told me I was "reading too much into this". So I guess it's really about ethics in videogame journalism.

I also feel that some people who either identify as or get categorised as geeks might experience clothing primarily as a weapon of social distinction rather than as a source of joy or pleasure. At school, clothes are used to police in-crowds and are adopted as badges of honour by defiant subcultural outsiders. If you felt victimised by or wanted to opt out of all that bullshit, you might say, "I don't care about what I wear."

But as a researcher of clothes, I think very few people genuinely don't care about what they wear. I suspect that people who deliberately wear the same thing every day (rather than dress randomly from a limited pool of utilitarian clothes) actually have much more invested in the issue of clothing, and have a keener awareness of what their clothing says about them, than your stereotypical absent-minded professor whose mum or wife or workplace supplies his clothing.

So the semiotic question – what wearing the same thing every day might express about a person – is the issue I focus on in the Junkee feature.