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My Tribe Is an Unsophisticated People | CultureBy – Grant McCracken
"This is a photograph of Sara Little Turnbull (1917–2015). Sara was an designer and anthropologist. In 1988 she founded, and for 18 years she ran, the Process of Change Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

I like this photo for a couple of reasons. Sara was caught at her desk, mid-task, mid-thought. She senses the camera and gives it a knowing look. What’s maybe most striking is her clothing. Ever so fashionable. Ever so anti-anthropological.

My tribe dresses badly. Jeans. It takes a lot of denim to clothe the field. We don’t ever dress up. The idea appears to be to dress as far down as possible without provoking the suspicion of vagrancy. When formal clothing is called for the anthropologist sometimes resorts to the clothing of the culture they study. Put it this way, no one ever looks like Sara.

A lot of this is “badge of pride” stuff. Anthropologists dress badly to make a point. They want you to know that they reject the conventions of a mainstream society, that they care nothing for the bourgeois respectability, upward mobility, and/or conspicuous consumption that animate the dress codes of the rest of the world. It’s not a punk violation of code. It’s just a way of saying “Look, we’re out.”

This strategy is not without it’s costs. As Marshall Sahlins, God’s gift to anthropology, used to say in his University of Chicago seminars, “every theory is a bargain with reality.” (By which we believed he meant, every theory buys some knowledge at the cost of other knowledge.) And so it is with every suit of clothing. It give you access to some parts of the world, but it denies you access to others.

This social immobility is not a bad thing if you are a nuclear scientist or a botanist. But it does matter if you are prepared to make claims to knowledge when it comes to your own culture, and anthropologists are never shy on this topic.

Anthropologists believe they know about a great deal about their own culture. But in point of fact, there are many worlds they do not know and cannot access, worlds of which they have scant personal knowledge and in which they have few personal contacts. Generally speaking, they don’t know anyone in the worlds of venture capital, advertising, graphic design, publishing, fashion, forecasting, strategy, philanthropy, art museums, professional sports, industrial design, user experience, startup capitalism, banking, branding, public relations, small business, big business, or politics. It’s a lot, the things anthropologist don’t know about their own culture.

Anjali Ramachandran recently heard Salman Rushdie speak in London and recalls he said something like,

“One thing I tell students is to try and get into as many different kinds of rooms to hear as many different kinds of conversations as possible. Because otherwise how will you find things to put in your books?”

Just so. Rushdie’s “many rooms” strategy is not embraced in anthropology. By and large, anthropologists encourage their students to stick to a small number of rooms where, by and large, they conduct the same conversation.

This is ironic not least because one of the field’s most recent and convincing contributions to the world beyond it’s own is actually a contemplation of the danger of living in a silo. Gillian Tett (PhD in social anthropology, University of Cambridge) recently published a book called The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. This is a book about the compartmentalization of all organizations, but it might have been a study of the field of anthropology.

The further irony is that in its post-modern moment, anthropology claims to be especially, even exquisitely, self reflexive, but the sad thing is that it does ever seem to be reflexive on matters like this. Clifford Geertz used to say that much of anthropology is self confession. Too bad that’s no longer true.

Irony gives way to something less amusing when we see that this provincialism is not just self-imposed but enforced as a tribal obligation. Those who dare dress “up” or “well” or “fashionably” or, as we might say, “in a manner that maximizes cultural mobility” is scorned. As graduate students, we actually dared sneer at the elegant suits sported by Michael Silverstein. How dare he refuse this opportunity to tell the world how world-renouncing he was! There is something odd and a little grotesque about willing a provincialism of this kind and then continuing to insist on your right to make claims to knowledge.

Sara Little Turnbull knew better. She understood how many mansions are contained in the house of contemporary culture. She embraced the idea that anthropology was a process of participant observation and that we can’t understand our culture from the outside alone. Sara also understood that the few “ideas” that anthropology uses to account for this endlessly various data is a little like the people of Lilliput hoping to keep Gulliver in place on the beach with a couple of guy wires. Eventually the beast comes to. Sara could study contemporary culture because she didn’t underestimate it or constrain her rights of access."
anthropology  clothing  clothes  howwedress  grantmccracken  2015  saralittleturnball  anthropologists  ethnography  designresearch  centerfordesignresearch  salmanrushdie  processofchangelaboratory  anjaliramachandran  culture  gilliantett  marshallsahlins  provincialism  fashion  whatwewear  immersion 
november 2015 by robertogreco
Metafoundry 30: Confusion Matrices
"WE ARE THE DOOM SQUAD: In this fantastic interview for Rawr Denim, William Gibson talks about clothing and fashion: “There’s an idea called “gray man”, in the security business, that I find interesting. They teach people to dress unobtrusively. Chinos instead of combat pants, and if you really need the extra pockets, a better design conceals them. ...[T]here’s something appealingly “low-drag” about gray man theory: reduced friction with one’s environment.” That made me wonder: “What does a 'grey woman' look like?”, which made me think about how Deborah Tannen used the linguistics terms marked and unmarked to describe gender and clothing. Just as many English words are default male (unmarked), with a changed ending to connote female (marked; think 'actor' vs 'actress'), she argued that men's dress can be unmarked but women's dress is always marked. That is, there are decisions that men make about what they wear that are defaults, that aren’t even seen as a decision. In contrast, every decision that a woman makes about what she wears—heels vs, flats, pants vs, skirts, the length of a skirt and the height of a neckline, haircuts, jewelry—is freighted with cultural baggage. Take makeup. Especially in professional settings, for a woman, not wearing makeup is a noticeable, and notable, decision: marked. But for a man, not wearing makeup is not a decision—nobody notices when men aren't wearing makeup: unmarked. (Of course, a man wearing makeup is very marked indeed.)

Since I was a tween, I've been mostly wearing black clothes (with a bit of grey), no branding, minimal ornamentation, and simple lines. Right now, my wardrobe mostly consists of black jeans and trousers and a few skirts and dresses, t-shirts, hoodies, jackets (worn according to the formality of the event). Given the historically snowy weather in Boston this winter, some of my more technical outerwear and other clothing was folded into my regular wardrobe by necessity, which resulted in an aesthetic that a friend described as ‘cyberpunk Winter Soldier’. Contra Gibson’s description of Cayce Pollard Units, I’m not sure there are any women’s clothes that could have been unremarkably worn between 1945 and 2000; for a start, that my clothes are monochrome has been remarked on regularly since I was a teenager, not least because black has a long history of cultural connotations of its own.

The aesthetic choice to wear black that I made when my parents were still buying my clothes was cemented when I was an undergraduate and graduate student (almost all of my teens and twenties), because black clothes are an intensely practical choice when the phrase ‘disposable income’ is an oxymoron. I remember this Glenn O’Brien article in SPIN from 1985, in which (once you get past the casual homophobia and the implicit assumption that women are not reading it, and possibly not even sentient beings) he makes the case for that practicality—how black clothes don’t show dirt or damage much (useful when you can't easily afford to replace something if you spill coffee on it), and how they’re appropriate for a wide range of social settings. And all shades of black match, which is more than you can say for other colours. But what wearing black mostly meant to me was that I could make decisions about purchasing clothes and accessories on just one axis—functionality—without worrying about colour. When I gave talks at research conferences or went off to interviews for a postdoctoral position, I had exactly one purse and one pair of good dress shoes and one briefcase and I could still be guaranteed that I had a coordinated outfit.

The roots of the ‘Grey Man’ lie in the Great Male Renunciation: the period around the end of the 17th century, in the middle of the Enlightenment, when society collectively decided that men’s clothing, previously as colourful and ornamented as women’s, was to be dark, sober and serious. What’s kind of astonishing is how we've never really gone back—a quick scroll through red-carpet photos makes that clear—and how we mostly just accept this sexual dimorphism as the norm. Just why men's clothing has never returned to pre-GMR levels of finery is something I’ll leave to historians and sociologists, but it’s almost certainly related to the harsh enforcement of gender norms—while women can wear colours and clothing styles indistinguishable from men’s (as I write this, I’m wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt, and Camper high-tops), the slightest hint of femininity in men’s self-presentation elicits verbal abuse at best, and the worst is far worse.

I have more money to spend on clothes than I did as a grad student, so the quality of what I wear has gone up markedly (Fluevog Derby Swirls instead of steel-toed police boots from the surplus store), but what passes for my personal aesthetic has been pretty constant for two decades. Gibson talks about ‘reduced friction with one’s environment’, and that’s an element of how I dress: wearing a de facto uniform means that I spend very little time getting dressed in the morning, and makes it infinitely easier to pack for the frequent travel I do. Fran Lebowitz (who herself wears a gender-bending daily uniform) defends this move in a recent interview with Elle: “[T]here's nothing wrong in not caring. A man who doesn't care about what he looks like, he's applauded. We say, 'Oh, he's not superficial!'” My own personal Great Female Renunciation is tolerated in my professional environment of academic engineering. But, if you’re a woman, it’s almost impossible to eliminate the social friction around what you’re wearing: as Tannen noted, the way you dress is always perceived (and judged) by others, no matter how much you try to be unremarkable. You can turn this to your advantage: as Lebowitz puts it, “What's so great thing [sic] about clothes is that they're artificial—you can lie, you can choose the way you look, which is not true of natural beauty.” So while there isn't really a 'grey woman', you have more options for active camouflage. But, of course, most of us aren't super-sekrit agents, and this social scrutiny is always in action. It infuriates me when my female students are routinely asked if they have a date when they wear something other than a t-shirt and jeans, are told they are ‘too pretty’ to be engineers, or when my female academic colleagues are presumed, implicitly or explicitly to be less ‘serious’ if they are ‘too’ well put together.

I mostly think about the semiotics of what I wear in the same way that C.P. Snow is said to have described the three laws of thermodynamics: "You can’t win. You can’t break even. You can’t quit the game." There’s a reason why women care deeply about fashion—because it matters. Because it affects how literally everyone you encounter treats you. Given this, the depth of feeling in stories about wardrobes like those recounted in Sheila Heti’s Women in Clothes make more sense. I am acutely aware of the social and professional privilege that means I can opt-out of ‘dressing for success’ (I already have the job I want), although I’m certainly cognizant of what I’m leaving on the table by not paying much attention to style (for me, spending my time and money on other things is a fair trade; the value proposition is different for every woman) and that the specific way that I don't care about fashion is also a statement ('you can't quit the game'). It's common for men to demonstrate mild (or strong) disdain for how much women care about fashion or how much money women spend on clothes. But they are mostly just demonstrating a complete lack of awareness of a semiotic system that women are required to participate in, in order to accrue both economic and social benefits, which men are largely exempt from. "
debchachra  2015  uniforms  uniformproject  glvo  gender  clothing  howwedress  semiotics  williamgibson  caycepollard  color  daborahtannen  greyman  glenno'brien  franlebowitz  cpsnow  sheilaheti  womeninclothes  privilege  presentationofself  identity  freedom  signaling  pesonaluniforms 
march 2015 by robertogreco

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