Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Bowtie, a Plaid Jacket, a Paisley Tux, and Flip Flops at the White House

There’s a picture on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday” of me receiving my National Achievement Scholarship award from Western Electric back in 1974. The first thing most of my friends noticed was the tie I was wearing…it was a huge white bowtie. After that, they noticed the jacket. It was plaid…boldly plaid.

When the comments started coming in, the first thing I did was to remind them of the era that photo was from. But then I remembered my prom…and Susan Ford’s prom…and realized that other factors were involved here…one that might explain the infamous White House “Flip Flop Flap” of 2005.

The missing factors were culture and socioeconomic class.

I grew up among people for whom a jacket and tie were not everyday wear, but something you put on when you got dressed up. These were postal workers, teachers, hairdressers, retail workers, librarians, autoworkers, and such. Solid middle-class or working-class citizens who took pride in how they looked when they got dressed up. And when they got dressed up, they put on their best…and fanciest…clothes. We didn’t have a distinction between business clothes and formal wear – anything that involved wearing a jacket and shiny shoes was getting dressed up.

This leads me to my prom. There’s another Throwback Thursday photo of me, from that same year, at my senior prom, wearing a black and white paisley print tux with a powder blue ruffled shirt, and a big black bowtie. I recall reading that same year that a President Ford’s daughter Susan’s prom, the big question was “black tux or white tux?”

“Black tux or white tux?” How boring! How totally lacking in imagination and style! What was wrong with these people?

Little did I realize that I was laughing at how “tastefully boring” their prom attire would be, people in the social class of the Fords (both the Geralds and the Henrys) would be laughing at the tacky “costumes” that my friends and I chose for our prom attire…even though it was fancier than what we would wear on a regular basis.

I figured this out somewhere during the next 10 years, as I left the people I knew in East Orange, and met other people from other places, and saw how people in other cultures and different socioeconomic classes did things. It was then that I learned the difference between dress (or business) clothes and fancy ones. It was then that I learned, to my horror, that despite the fact that they were shiny and black, and not suede, loafers were not considered dress shoes; and that the “proper” shoes to wear for such occasions would be wingtips, which I thought were among the ugliest shoes known to mankind. Not to worry though, I wore loafers to my wedding anyway…after all, it was my wedding.

And this brings us to the Flip Flop Flap of 2005. For those of you who don’t remember, this was when members of the Northwestern University Women’s Lacrosse Team were taken to task for wearing…gasp…flip flops to a White House ceremony in their honor. Now I’m not talking the cheap little rubber things you buy to wear at the beach. I’m talking really nice…really fancy…shoes, that just happened to have descended from that lineage, and had the little strap between the toes. The Fashion Police, accompanied by people of certain social classes, went out with their riot gear on over this one. “How could they possibly wear…gasp…flip flops…to the White House?”

Um…probably the same way that I’d wear nice black loafers.

But there are two important things to consider here. The first is that, at the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, there is probably not a straight male anywhere who saw the photo of those girls at the White House, and noticed their shoes. I doubt that President Bush himself even noticed. Guys tend to know four types of women’s shoes: flats, heels, sandals, and sneakers. Anything else is a subset that we don’t really need to know about.

The second is that the people who got bent so horribly out of shape about the flip flops…the really nice flip flops that some members of the team were wearing…are…wait for it…snobs. These girls dressed up in their nicest clothes and nicest shoes for a very special occasion, and these people decided to go ballistic over a fashion rule that many of them probably didn’t even know existed, because they didn’t grow up with it.

I look back at those pictures of me in that plaid jacket with that huge bowtie, or my paisley print tux for the prom, and I laugh. But I look at the picture of the Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse Team, and I still don’t see anything wrong with their shoes.

At least they weren’t wearing wingtips.

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