Town Halls and T-Shirts

WaPo fashion critic Robin Givhan has irked some conservative bloggers by going after the town hall protesters for being a mite casual in their choice of couture.

In Lebanon, Pa., senator and constituents have a clothes encounter. (By Bradley C. Bower -- Associated Press)By and large, the shouters are dressed in a way that underscores their Average Guy — or Gal — bona fides. They are wearing T-shirts, baseball caps, promotional polo shirts and sundresses with bra straps sliding down their arm. They wear fuchsia bandannas and American-flag hankies wrapped around their skulls like sweatbands. A lot of them look as though they could be attending a sporting event and, as it turns out, the congressman is the opposing player they have decided to heckle. If not for the prohibition on signs and banners inside these meetings, one could well expect to see some of these volatile worker bees wearing face paint and foam fingers, albeit the highlighted digit would be one expressing foul displeasure rather than competitive rank or skill level.

[…]

The common man, in his T-shirt and jeans, is shouting passionately at “the suit.” In the videos from these meetings, audio is unnecessary. It’s clear who’s in charge and who is shouting into the wind.

What would happen if all those unhappy townspeople showed up for these meetings in suit jackets, like high school debaters prepared to take on their opponents with facts and nimble intellect rather than histrionics? Would they garner more respect? Would they compel more lawmakers to rethink their positions rather than merely repeat, again and again — in a voice that has the tone of an impatient kindergarten teacher — the same core points?

[…]

Washington’s power brokers have suited up to underscore their authority and the seriousness of the subject matter. And bully for them. But their attire also says: I am the boss of you. All those howling citizens — in their T-shirts and ball caps and baggy shorts — are saying: No, you’re not.

Glenn Reynolds thinks Givhan is “underscoring the press’s identification with the rulers rather than with the ruled” and observes, “There was a time when journalists were badly-dressed working stiffs, rather than upper-middle-class strivers putting on airs.”

Ann Althouse thinks Givhan is obsessed with men’s suits and wonders why she didn’t write a column about the Beer Summit, where men sat awkwardly in suits drinking beer in the sweltering sun.

Pundette says “Givhan reveals so much contempt for the poorly dressed masses that one wonders whether her chief motive in writing this is to run them down.”  P.J. Gladnick chimes in with “dripping with disdain.” And Fausta Wertz thinks Givhan’s missing the real story behind the protests.

Steve Gilbert points out, “The angry mob just can’t win. One day they are mocked for dressing like Brooks Brothers. And the next we have this.”

And Don Surber notes that Democrats wear t-shirts, too!

Now, I’m far from Robin Givhan‘s biggest fan.  She first came to my attention in January 2005 for her post on Dick Cheney’s Auschwitz outfit.  She followed up with commentaries on Condi Rice’s commanding clothes, John Bolton’s hairJohn Roberts’s 1950s family, and Hillary Clinton’s cleavage.  Let’s just say the New Yorker hasn’t come clamoring for her services.  (Although, in fairness, she won a Pulitzer for this stuff!)

But doesn’t she have something of a point here?

Sure, our elected representatives work for us. Accordingly, they wear suits when meeting with us as a sign of respect for their bosses and to demonstrate that they’re serious people worthy of our continued trust.

But we each represent ourselves. How we dress sends signals about sort of people we are.

And this isn’t about social class.  Attorneys and executives are going to dress differently on the job than truck drivers and farmers. Most likely, they’re going to own nicer, more expensive clothes, too.  But just as attorneys shouldn’t wear $1500 suits to a picnic, truck drivers shouldn’t wear sweaty overalls when they’re dining out with their families.

People going to a town hall meeting with their Congressman should dress in a way that shows respect for the occasion, their fellow citizens, and themselves. T-shirts and flip flops are great for sitting around watching TV or grilling burgers in the backyard.  But I change into better attire than that for a trip to the supermarket.

It’s true that reporters were, once upon a time, on the same financial and educational level as cops and teachers and firefighters.   Most likely, their clothes were shabbier in those days.  But I bet they all showed up in suits when they went to City Hall.

FILED UNDER: Media, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. kth says:

    The contempt for the official and the assembly, conveyed by the casual attire, isn’t a bug but a feature. I’m not sure anyone puts on a coat and tie to heckle someone.

  2. Herb says:

    People going to a town hall meeting with their Congressman should dress in a way that shows respect for the occasion, their fellow citizens, and themselves.

    They should also act in a way that shows respect for the occasion, too…

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Sure, our elected representatives work for us. Accordingly, they wear suits when meeting with us as a sign of respect for their bosses and to demonstrate that they’re serious people worthy of our continued trust.

    I think you’re reaching a bit with this observation, James. If wearing a suit is a sign of respect for the constituency, then what is taking off your coat and speaking in your shirtsleeves a sign of?

    I think that for politicians the suits are their work clothes, just as the uniform for a police officer is. A politician wears a suit when meeting with constituents by reflex because it’s his work clothes.

    The folks at the town hall meetings aren’t, by and large, wearing work clothes because they’re not working.

  4. James Joyner says:

    If wearing a suit is a sign of respect for the constituency, then what is taking off your coat and speaking in your shirtsleeves a sign of?

    A customary populist affectation.

    The folks at the town hall meetings aren’t, by and large, wearing work clothes because they’re not working.

    We’ve become more casual in our attire but surely suits aren’t mere work clothes at this juncture? People wear them to weddings, funerals, church, the theater, and so forth as well. And, frankly, even pressed khakis and a polo shirt would be fine for a townhall meeting. But a logo t-shirt?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    As you know, James, I work as an election judge. Every election day people show up to vote wearing everything from three piece suits to pajamas and everything in between. When I engage in something even remotely political I dress because I’ve found it more effective. Most people haven’t established a customary attire for political action.

  6. Boyd says:

    Sorry, James, but I believe that anyone who thinks that the attire of the protesters is significant is as disconnected from reality on this point as Robin Givhan.

    Sure, if they deliberately wore certain attire to send a particular message, that would potentially be noteworthy. But these folks just go there dressed as they normally dress in their free time.

    It makes sense to me when pundits, either political or sartorial, address items of substance. This case ain’t one of them. In either category.

  7. just me says:

    I am mostly with Boyd on this one. I just don’t see the significance in playing fashion police for those who attend town meetings.

    I will say, that if I were attending a town hall (I have actually attended a few political rallies over the years-no town halls though) I would probably wear something between t-shirts and shorts and Sunday best.

    I do think the lines of what is or isn’t appropriate dress for the occasion have been blurred a lot. When I was a child it would have caused a stir to show up for church in shorts-even jeans were frowned upon, but now I see people in church with t-shirts and shorts, shoot I have and often wear clothes to church that wouldn’t have passed muster 30 years ago.

    Not sure if this can be seen as a good thing-and it may be worth discussing in and of itself, but the reality is that it isn’t just political events where people dress down and dress casually, it is pretty much everywhere.

  8. G.A.Phillips says:

    We’ve become more casual in our attire but surely suits aren’t mere work clothes at this juncture? People wear them to weddings, funerals, church, the theater, and so forth as well. And, frankly, even pressed khakis and a polo shirt would be fine for a townhall meeting. But a logo t-shirt?

    Does ACORN or SEIU issue count?

  9. G.A.Phillips says:

    lol, so I guess digital t-shirts work better.

    Speaking of t-shirts what up with my half*** astromob leadership?Talking points but no free T’s so I can represent!!!!

  10. steve says:

    When I meet with our Congressman, I wear a suit. If I go to a public meeting, I wear a jacket or at least decent pants and a nice shirt. You just send the message that you are there to be taken more seriously. Heaven knows I rebelled against this for years, but it is just the way we are hard wired.

    Steve

  11. yetanotherjohn says:

    So only the well dressed should have a political voice? Perhaps we should further require a property qualification before they can vote.

    Please show me a similar article about the code pink T-shirts or the like and I may agree that there is a point here. Absent that, this is just a club being used to hit those who don’t want government to control their lives.

  12. Jeff Quinton says:

    People want to dress casually for everything now.

    My wife’s church has problems with people showing up for Mass in flip flops and shorts.

  13. brainy435 says:

    How does this square with the fact that well-dressed people at town halls are supposedly indicative of Astroturfing? If they dress up they’re plants but if they don’t dress up they’re disrespectful? Its almost like people are trying to discredit them no matter what they do, say or wear…

  14. It’s hard to get the mentally unbalanced to dress properly.

  15. bystander says:

    I say “Let them eat cake!”

  16. Tom says:

    If people are going to show up in t-shirts, they might as well wear t-shirts that reinforce their desired message.

  17. JKB says:

    G.A. : On the non-leftist side it is strictly BYOTS (Bring your own tee shirt)

    As for dressing up, well it would be nice but only necessary when you are appealing to someone for their favor. The townhall protesters aren’t asking their representative for a favor, they are letting an employee know they are unhappy with the way they are doing their job. If he ignores them because they don’t dress to suit him, well he’d better hope they don’t show up at the polls dressed like that.

    Seems to me this whole how-you-dress discussion reveals more of the out of touch Beltway mentality that how you don’t dress as the popular kids dictate you’re a nobody.

  18. sam says:

    Seems perfectly apppropriate attire for a lynching.

  19. mannning says:

    It occurs to me that what one wears is a personal choice, and reflects a certain image. The question of appropriateness of attire arises more because of custom and tradition than the seriousness of the matter at hand.

    At the evening town hall meetings I have attended near Boston in the 70’s, there was a full spread of casual-to-suit attire, quite normally because of the type of work the people had just come from, plus the image each wanted to project.

    It would have been considered grossly inappropriate to criticize attendees for their attire, and even undemocratic, then…and now!

  20. democratsarefascists says:

    “Why are those people dressed in rags?
    “They’re peasants, Your Majesty.”
    “Could they not have dressed in their best to see their queen? They work for ME, after all. It is not like I have to be here.”

    So which is it?
    Are we “Brooks Brothers protesters” to be sneered at because we’re astroturf, or are we racist NASCAR adherents to be sneered at because we’re from flyover country?
    Which is it, Big City Democrat elitists?

    Even bigotry needs to be consistent, fools.

  21. sam says:

    Are we “Brooks Brothers protesters” to be sneered at because we’re astroturf, or are we racist NASCAR adherents to be sneered at because we’re from flyover country?

    Why aren’t both at-sneerable? Just asking.

  22. Rick Almeida says:

    People wear them to weddings, funerals, church, the theater, and so forth as well.

    I don’t know, James…I don’t see many suits anymore at any of these places. In fact, when I go to church, I am generally the only person under 60 in a jacket and tie. This is doubly true for weddings.

  23. Ben says:

    I hope they dress for the town hall meetings the same way they dress when they show up to vote against these suits that are stealing our country. Because that is how I would dress.

  24. brainy435 says:

    Ah, sam and Michale doing their best to emulate their hero in his quest to reunite this splintered country.

  25. hcantrall says:

    I think this really goes along with my experience doing or going anywhere. As a kid my father wouldn’t let my brother and I wear shorts to school because he felt it was not proper attire. We grew up in Southern California – it’s pretty laid back there. I thought he was ridiculous but as I’ve gotten older I notice the difference. If my husband and I dress nicely and go shopping or to a decent restaurant or anything we’re treated more nicely and with more respect than if we’re wearing very casual clothes.

  26. steve says:

    “I think this really goes along with my experience doing or going anywhere. As a kid my father wouldn’t let my brother and I wear shorts to school because he felt it was not proper attire. We grew up in Southern California – it’s pretty laid back there. I thought he was ridiculous but as I’ve gotten older I notice the difference. If my husband and I dress nicely and go shopping or to a decent restaurant or anything we’re treated more nicely and with more respect than if we’re wearing very casual clothes.”

    Yes. Not sure how or why this is some beltway eltitst thing. Growing up in the Midwest and spending every summer on the farm, my farmwife grandmother would have brought out the willow switch if we did not dress properly for church and official occasions. It is just a matter of proper behavior.

    What my grandmother figured out and passed on to us grandkids, consultants have figured out in the business world. You dont have to like it or agree with it, but it remains true. The hippies tried to reject this and now, oh the humor here, the conservative “real Americans” reject it.

    Steve

  27. NotAndreLeonTalley says:

    Isn’t Ms. Givhan the same person who tells us that Michelle Obama is a “fashion icon?” I suppose she’d be happy if the people at the townhall meetings wore the kitchen curtains like Mrs. Obama did in Paris (I keep thinking of Carol Burnett playing Scarlett O’Hara to Harvey Korman’s Rhett Butler). Honestly, this woman wouldn’t know fashion if it bit her in her posterior, no matter that she has won a Pulitzer. Her commentary has nothing to do with manner of dress, it is simply a way of denigrating people with whom she disagrees. Ms. Givhan’s prose is dripping with disdain and she has little reason to such hubris. Affirmative action permeates our culture and she is a classic example of lack of self-esteem and arrogance. She is masquerading as something she is not.

  28. Alex Knapp says:

    James,

    Once again, you are letting your elitist roots show.

    REAL AMERICANS don’t wear suits. They’re the salt of the earth. Heck, they don’t wear any clothes at all that aren’t frayed and full of holes.

    REAL AMERICANS don’t care about formal dress. They know that this is a democracy, dammit, and therefore everbody should wear the same outfit at all times, whether you’re mowing the lawn, going to a funeral, or heading out to the racetrack.

    REAL AMERICANS don’t need polished shoes. Flip flops were good enough for Jesus, so they’re good enough for America.

    REAL AMERICANS don’t bother bathing every day, like those lousy effete Europeans. They EARNED that hard day’s sweat.

    James, why do you hate America?

  29. An Interested Party says:

    …these suits that are stealing our country.

    Who, exactly, are the “suits” and how are they “stealing” this country and who are they “stealing” it for?

    Meanwhile, George Will weeps…

  30. G.A.Phillips says:

    Well Any way I have a couple ideas for some AstroMob-T’s…

    GO GREEN AND TAKE BLUE AND PURPLE WITH YOU

    I WISH YOU HAD A BRAIN INSTEAD OF A BUMPER STICKER

    TRY TAXING ME RIGHT NOW GIMPRAD

    PRO WHATEVER THE TELEPROMPTER SAYS

  31. ggr says:

    A quick look through history suggests fashion is more or less arbitrary. People who worry about how others dress (presuming its not indecent, smelly, or filthy) are generally either trying to sell something, or want to attack the wearers and lack the intelligence to come up with anything but superficial criticism.

    George Will’s article is just silly – what’s wrong with wearing durable clothing in an office setting? He’s either getting money from clothing manufacturers (don’t buy those pants, they’ll last a long time), or had a deadline and couldn’t come up with anything better.

  32. G.A.Phillips says:

    Yes I said like animals Mr. President, but I really don’t know much about lions…and I’m not to sure what a czar does…But what the hay…when do I start?

  33. G.A.Phillips says:

    oops:()

  34. Self Esteem says:

    great post… i am such a blog nut, thanks for the free information, i loved reading yours.. keep up the good work