Yes, clothes really do make the activist
If environmentalism is dead, then that ratty sweater has to go, too. Ditto for sandals as everyday footwear — only one man ever pulled off that look, and that was during King Herod’s reign. One more thing: piling your dreads under that knit cap makes your head look like a Jiffy Pop about to explode. Yeah, I’m talking to you, environmentalists. It’s time to keep up appearances.
I’m sorry to be the one delivering the Carson Kressley-style bitch slaps to all you greens, but someone needs to broach this tender subject. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and fashion does matter. So get up off the tufted fainting couch, blot your swollen eyes with some unbleached, recycled tissues, and let me have a look at you. Oh my. You do look flaky in those pants.
I know it’s repugnant to suggest that we focus on sartorial matters while trying to save our steamy, doomed planet, but the other team is running up the score. In late February, The Washington Post ran an article oozing with ardor for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who’d worn a black military-style jacket and sexy boots to an army airfield in Germany.
“Rice boldly eschewed the typical fare chosen by powerful American women on the world stage,” wrote Robin Givhan in the Post. “She was not wearing a bland suit with a loose-fitting skirt and short boxy jacket with a pair of sensible pumps.” Givhan went on to say that Condi’s attire was not “overt” or “inappropriate.” (This makes me wonder: If a female Democrat had worn that attire, would the media have swooned? I can just imagine the headline: “Vampy Dem Slut Struts for Troops.” But I digress.)
My point is, image consultants are working around the clock to ensure that next-generation oil barons keep their pudgy bottoms in the seat of power. These consultants know that even the simplest tactics can produce enormous results. If you don’t believe me, slap a cowboy hat on your head and pepper your speech with folksy malapropisms, and see if you can sell a war.
Why all this focus on style? Well, it’s no big secret that clothes send powerful signals. Humans long have worn animal skins and fur to convey dominance, sexuality, and power. If you doubt this, get thee to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where, much to the chagrin of intellectuals everywhere, herds of people are racing by the predynastic Egyptian art to see mannequins in cat suits. They’re part of the current exhibit “Wild: Fashion Untamed,” which explores animalism expressed through clothes.
Today, power is communicated by custom-made suits. We have television to thank for this trend. It most likely started in the 1960 presidential debate, when Richard Nixon, who was recovering from the flu, looked positively ghoulish next to the tanned, telegenic John F. Kennedy. To make matters worse, Nixon wore a suit that didn’t contrast well with the television studio’s background. Most radio listeners declared the debate a tie, but TV viewers gave the victory to JFK. Ever since then, presidential aides have been fretting over suit and tie color. Of course, image consulting is a tricky science, because the press and public are a fickle lot. Poor John Kerry was criticized for being too stylish, and then for trying too hard to be casual. All Kerry needed was a leopard-print tie. (Wow, I’m really good at this.)
Still skeptical? The proof is in the silken tofu pudding. My friend Karl Warkomski is not only a Green Party member, but also the mayor of Aliso Viejo, Calif. — a remarkable feat in Reagan-swooning, Bushie-loving Orange County. At least part of his recipe for success is a Trojan horse strategy: he dresses like Thurston Howell III.
“We greens have to stop looking like we eat bark and live in a root cellar,” says Warkomski, who sometimes accessorizes his preppy work attire with hemp canvas shoes, the eco-equivalent of bling. And his theory holds water: Aliso Viejo recently passed a seriously green building ordinance. I doubt Karl could have garnered support for it while sporting a “How did our oil get underneath their sand?” T-shirt (though he does wear that T-shirt underneath his dress-up clothes).
All I’m asking you to do is, like Karl, think about your image. Strategically. This doesn’t have to mean selling your soul. There are manufacturers out there making ecologically intelligent clothes. And if you can’t afford or find a fair-trade, Italian-cut, three-button wool suit for that speech on the merits of wind power, try buying secondhand. I once found a pair of late-model Prada shoes in my Sasquatch size at a used clothing store, so you never know. If you’re still at a loss for where to buy pleather pumps, ask Umbra. Help drive up the demand for ecouture. (Yes, I just made that up.) Stop complaining about capitalism and make it your bitch.
Apathy toward image may be an expression of rebellion, but it’s also a blown opportunity. You could be promoting a green lifestyle as one of vitality and flair, rather than one of dreary deprivation. Yes, my lovely, that flannel shirt makes me think of splitting wood. And no, it doesn’t make me want to become a woodsman.
Before you toss that cup of wheatgrass juice in my face, I beg you to remember one thing: to be effective, you need to be taken seriously. In order to work on your nefarious liberal plan to make our planet healthier and safer for all of humankind, you have to get your shiny boot in the door.
Get Grist in your inbox