100Cyborgs: 21-30
Gremlin Infestation


Lars JuhlOur contemporary mythology is rife with associations between clothing and power – every superhero and supervillain testifies to the importance of sartorial influence, every queen and king has their crown. How would you know a superhero without their costume? How would you know an executive without their suit?

The suit-human cyborg is something we encounter so regularly that we seldom notice. Here, amidst us, walk a class of humans who through their symbiotic relationship with their tailored clothing transcend conventional notions of equality and warrant disproportionate pay scales. The suit communicates something very specific: we are management. We are more important than you, we are worth more than you, we can give less and take more. Be careful not to mistake ‘middle management’ for the real deal: a white collar is still just a minion. And don’t think for a moment that simply wearing a tailored suit is enough. You could spend a grand on these garments, or even five times that much for a suit from Saville Row in London, but you would only be an impostor if you did not also both earn more that the other people in your organisation, and believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that this situation was justified. The suit manifests a superpower: superiority, power, control.

The tailored suit was and is a tool of Empire, specifically the British Empire. From roots in the wardrobe of Charles II in the seventeenth century, we arrived at a style of dress required essentially as a uniform for the British gentlemen, and for anyone from elsewhere in the world that wished to emulate them. Then as now, the suit paraded your opulence, displaying to all around that you possess influence, money, or both. The idea that class became a thing of the past in the twentieth century is a quaint conceit – what happened was that blood became less important than money in determining who deserved a bigger share of the pie. This particular gentlemen’s club now admits ladies... but even they must be able to use a suit if they are to be a true executive. It is the cost of admission to a institution that upends all sense of fiscal proportion.

Alasdair MacIntyre drew attention to what he called ‘the moral fiction of managerial effectiveness’, which is to say, the idea that elite managers are so much better at making decisions that they not only warrant greater institutional power but also disproportionate remuneration for their talents. It is perhaps the defining deceit of our time, and the tailored suit serves to elegantly reinforce it, to allow those humans who have become complicit in the corruption of the ideals of equality to reassure themselves: “I'm worth it.”

A Hundred Cyborgs, #36


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But it seems to me that women are excluded from this kind of power signalling, at whatever level. Thus women's dress not only does not play into these codes but to a certain extent cannot code them as management, a truth Merkel and May both contend with and which neither has been able to vanquish.
Thus the ladies cannot, as you say, 'use' a suit, realistically speaking, which means that their admission to the men's clubs remains tokenistic or on sufferance. Up to the very height of that infamous glass ceiling... Nor as I argue in an essay on little black dresses Link-> https://fordham.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1028&context=phil_babich <-Link is ordinary ladies' dress any kind of improvement: to the high heeled and wobbling contrary.
And academia, which increasingly opts to ditch tweed even for the gentlemen, has its own codes, as I joke about Simon Critchley in the aforementioned essay.
Many thanks for this!

[Drafted this on Tuesday but haven't been able to login to comment all week, but I'm going to try posting this using the name and email option - Chris]

Hi Babette,
I do not feel that women are excluded from, as you say, power signalling with suits and the like - when you examine the wardrobes of powerful women, there are patterns to be found, and statements being made. But it is certainly the case that it is easier for a man to have their status endorsed uncritically, i.e. that there are barriers here that face women in a way that men simply do not encounter (as men, anyway... it is not solely women who have a tougher road in this regard, after all - there are few disabled CEOs, for instance). And of course, one of the worrying things about all this is that women end up having to represent themselves on some level as men i.e. as participating in male roles and dress codes, because power and influence remain subtly or not-so-subtly gendered. And on this point, see Thursday's A Hundred Cyborg piece...

Thanks for the kind words!


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