Monday, April 29, 2013

You Only Wish Your Mother Wore Army Boots

                In city streets, or more accurately down alleys, one sees from time to time the figure of a crust punk picking through dumpsters for a bite to eat.  To take an archetype, the figure is clad head to toe in black, blanketed in patches that range from anti-fascist agitprop to punk band logos.  Between the hoodie and black bandana, there’s scarcely a face to be seen.  Piercings, stick and poke tattoos and black combat boots round out the ensemble.  This is probably pretty close to the popular image of an anarchist.

                One sometimes sees a different sort of figure – collared shirt underneath a sweater, pressed slacks and a generally immaculate presentation of middle-class respectability, marred only by a pin or two.  This is where I fit into the spectrum and it is more common than one might expect, although infinitely less visible.  I have taken flak from some crustier comrades for my pinstripes and paisley approach, being advised that it is impossible to be an anarchist without making your outward appearance a rejection of the values of capitalism.  At the same time, I have sometimes said no one should be allowed in front of a camera without getting a haircut.  

                If a rose by any other name smells as sweet, surely we all have the same reek of rebellion and stale cigarettes, regardless of our clothing.  There is a certain temptation to construct a polarized debate around the issue, then wave the black and white flag in favour of ceasefire.  It won’t be much of a movement if we implement a dress code.  I’m reminded of the lyric “Is this resistance or a costume party – either way, black with bandanas is a boring theme.”  Needless to say, requiring we all get decked out in business suits and preppy chic is batting for the other team.  

                The reason for the debate is that it is self-evident that clothing is political.  If the argument for dressing like a punk is to make an outward statement of defiance against conformity, then the counterargument is that doing so makes us permanently marginal.  People will be so put off by the aggression of our wardrobes they won’t be prepared to engage with our ideas.  I think there is some merit to both of these perspectives, but I also think there is a weird authoritarianism about saying *this* is the way anarchists should dress.  Such a matter of elementary self-expression is best left to the individual.

                Still, I do think there is a way anarchists should dress: honestly.  We don’t all think any one way – we can barely agree on what anarchy means!  Why should we all adopt a uniform, whether it’s covered in studs or ornamented by cufflinks?  Personally, I’ve never been to a punk show, and in leather and chains would be a baboon in a tuxedo more than an insurrectionary anarchist.  Conversely, I’ve seen some of my scummier friends squirm underneath collared shirts.  But there is more to it than that.  If the point of having a debate about clothing in anarchism is to control the representation of anarchists in popular media, then diversity is a thing to be celebrated!

                An anarchist should wear scrubs to the hospital.  They should wear hip-waders into the marsh.  They should be recognizable across the construction site in their bright orange helmet.  They’re fine in blue jeans and a mustard-stained white t-shirt, watching the game after a day at the factory.  The only thing an anarchist needs to look like is themselves, whatever the hell that is.  We’re people, not caricatures.  The punk thing is a media-hyped caricature of what anarchists should look like and if you wanna dress that way, that’s cool.  The suit thing is an embarrassing mimicry of the bourgeois crooks whose rule we aim to overthrow.  Arguing for either one as a dominant mode of sartorial expression is insisting on being caricatured.   The way we ought to look is like people.

                I think there is something to be said for visibility. Whether you stitch a patch into your leather jacket, slap a bumper sticker on your 18 wheeler or stick a pin through one lapel, having the circle A somewhere on your person is a great way to increase the visibility of the movement.  This is especially true in your workplace where it helps to differentiate the obtrusive branding of your employer from your identity as a worker.  Of course, it might also get you fired.  That’s the class war for you.

                It does strike me that the central issue of representation of anarchism in media is something we’ve left to corporations.  There is a political attitude among many anarchists that the media is inherently biased against them, that it’s impossible to get good press, etc etc.  This hasn’t been my experience, but I do also think there’s a limited amount we can do within the confines of corporate media.  My broader point is that anarchists seem almost totally disinterested in the problem of publicity.  Given that politicians, corporations and – particularly worrying – the police all have public relations divisions, this seems like a strategic oversight.  I don’t know if there’s some swelling moral belief among anarchists that we represent the little guy and so we can count on them to know that they’re being lied to.  I think that’s a cop-out.  Our public relations efforts don’t need to look like theirs, but it doesn’t mean we can afford to turn our noses up at the idea.

                I’ll have more to say about how that might look another time.  It relates to clothing in a fairly immediate way, though.  If we can show people that anarchists are workers, parents, artists, homeless and everything else in between, we can contest the narrative that we are some kind of culty fringe movement with an exclusivity complex.  Mind you, I’m not convinced there aren’t some anarchists who don’t like it that way.  There is always the anxious virus of individualism at play in people’s motives, and I suspect there would be a lot fewer teenage anarchists if they had to go to pickets with their moms.  For the rest of us, though, I think it’s probably best to dress like yourself.  Just make a little space in that to let people know that your ‘self’ includes anarchy.  No gods, no masters, no problem.

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