Not Like the Others vs. Just Like the Others

December 9, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can someone please explain the rules about formal dress?

The news story out of Washington yesterday was that at a White House reception on Sunday, three women wore the same dress. Four actually. The fourth was the first lady. Television reports spliced together a montage of the three women arriving, each escorted by a man in a tuxedo, and then Mrs. Bush in the same dress, a red Oscar de la Renta number that goes for $8500.

Under the circumstances, Mrs. Bush felt compelled to slip upstairs and into something else. If the other three women had been near their own walk-in closets, they would probably have done the same thing. Or at least two of them would have. But why?

Why is it so terrible for two or three or four women to be wearing the same dress? The news reporters assumed that we knew and did not explain. Nor did any of the reports even mention that all the men — not just two or three, but all of them — were wearing nearly identical outfits. Black tuxedos with white shirts and black ties. Clumped together at the White House reception, these plumpish, successful men looked like a colony of penguins. The women at the party, though many wore black, could choose all kinds of colors — Dolly Parton was in white, Shania Twain in a print. But if a man had arrived in some color other than black— a seasonal red or green for example— he might well have been denied admission.

The rules are clear:
Men – same style , no colors
Women — unique style; all colors

Obvioulsy these rules say something about gender, but what? That women have nothing better to do than to spend their time shopping for one-of-a-kind clothes while men are so busy they don’t have time to think about the matter? But that doesn’t explain the analogous pattern in names. Women don’t want themselves or their daughters to have names that are too common, and fashions in names for women, just like fashions in clothing, change much more rapidly than do men’s (to check name popularity, go here).

Why don’t we feel the same way about the names and clothes that men wear? The men-in-black requirement is especially interesting, at least to me. Once, to a friend’s wedding, I wore a deep blue dinner jacket instead of a tux, and I’m not sure if the family has ever forgiven me. Hey, it was summer in the 70s.

It wasn’t always like this. Go back two centuries or so, to the court of King George III rather than Bush George the Second, and you might think you’d stumbled into an Elton John theme party. Of course, even in the 18th century, women’s dress had greater variety than did men’s, but at least a guy could wear color. In this picture, which makes fun of the difficulties women encountered just to get into their gowns, the man is in bright red, and the maid (?) is in blue. (I'm not sure if the neutral-colored garment being laced up is the final layer or merely an undergarment.)

The rules of formal dress, just like preferences in names, probably also vary by social class and (at least in the US) race. Levitt and Dubner, the Freakanomics guys, maintain that changes in names (at least among whites in the US) filter down through the social class structure, starting from the top. What about fashions?

1 comment:

Dan Myers said...

Just an off-the-cuff (pun intended) notion, but perhaps it's because women are supposed to be an accessory for men. He is the solid foundational element, she is the frivalous decoration. I have no research to back this up, but it seems consistent with our culture's views of gender roles.