Several years ago, a television commercial sponsored by a council of churches became popular. It showed a well-dressed attractive woman walking down a dark street. Between her and her car stands a group of young people – laughing loudly, making comments in their own “talk” among themselves. She hesitates; she can’t really see them, only hear them. As they come toward her, they slow. Her nervousness shows on her face as she looks for a place of refuge.
Before taking the tale farther, what is your mind seeing? How are these young people dressed? Are they sober? Is she in danger? As the commercial continues, the group steps into the flickering light of one of the few street lamps. It is a group of teenage boys – wearing coats and ties, and well groomed. While the noise and laughter does not abate, the nervousness vanishes from her face. Be honest with yourself…was this the attire you expected?
The ability of the mind to make snap judgments about people and situations probably dates back to the earliest days of humanity. It was a skill needed for survival, to avoid tribes and groups bent on destruction and mayhem, and to avoid dangerous situations. Being a skill developed so early in our history, it is one what will probably never leave us. We can say that appearance shouldn’t matter – but how many can honestly say it doesn’t?
There was a time in our history when you could tell a persons’ place in society by his or her attire. Students wore black robes, their professors or higher level students added a hood or stole (the beginning of what we term “academic attire”). Military persons of rank wore swords; persons who labored tended to wear shorter tunics and heavier leggings while those who pursued careers requiring less perspiration wore longer tunics or robes and more expensive cloth. Women who labored in the home and field wore simplistic dresses while those who had others to labor for them wore the intricate designs we associate with the Renaissance. In many cases, one knew how to address another based simply on the manner of dress.
Every generation has had their “appearance rebellion”. For mine it was the British Invasion. Girls wanted to look like the model, Twiggy. Her legs were longer than long, her eyelashes enhanced and her skirts practically non-existent. Her hair, like that of her friend Cher, was straighter than straight – and her face had a sprinkling of freckles. It was the day of the Beetles and The Who. In our jeans and tie-dye, or mini-skirts and high boots, we looked alien and threatening to our elders and parents. Those daring enough to appear in court or for job interviews in such garb soon realized that, although they may be among the brightest and most dedicated of the generation, no one would ever know it unless they presented themselves in more traditional dress.
Much has been made in the media of late concerning the “power of the Hoodie” and the Zimmerman case. I am not commenting on the case or the actions of those involved. My question is – if you see a person in dim light with the hoodie, and you are alone – what is your immediate reaction?
Once a month, the first floor of the courthouse is flooded with people appearing in court for misdemeanor offenses. Some come clean and tidy, obviously aware that a court appearance is not something to be taken lightly. Others appear in what appear to be pajamas, pants that appear close to falling, and shirts that do not cover the upper torso – and some simply dress as though they want to be seen as thugs. One has to wonder if these folk are wholly unaware of the manner in which their appearance speaks for them, before they ever open their mouths.
Right or wrong, how we appear to others speaks volumes, and affects how others react to us. In the example offered in the opening paragraphs – had the light been sufficient for the woman to see the young people, would her reaction have been different? Surely! Yet that is no guarantee of safety. Is a young person attired in an untidy manner a thug? Not necessarily, but the reaction he or she receives from others will not be the same as if the individual were clad in other clothing.
There is a time to wear clothing appropriate for cleaning kennels or mowing the yard…namely when cleaning the kennels or mowing the yard! There is a time to be casual, and a time to be “appropriate”. While the clothes that fit those definitions have changed through time, the need to be aware – and to dress in step with that awareness has not changed. At least, not if one wishes to be treated like the person he or she IS rather than what they appear to be!
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .