I've never been one to dress up. I generally wear jeans just about everywhere. So I'm known for casual attire.
Incidentally, this makes "dressing up" a real pain in the neck, socially speaking. For example, Jana likes to shop at Goodwill stores. Recently she's been picking up a cool tie here and there. Mainly retro ties from the 60s and 70s that you just don't see anymore. So I've started wearing these ties to work once in a while. And when I do all day long it's "Hey! Look who dressed up! Look who is wearing a tie! What's the big occasion?!"
It makes for a very long day.
The point is, if I'm wearing a tie it's a big deal.
When I became the Department Chair seven years ago, selling my soul to the Principalities and Powers, my casual dress became a point of commentary. Mainly the issues had to do with something called "professionalism."
What does professionalism mean when it comes to workplace dress? Why are jeans not "professional" but pants/slacks/trousers are?
To be clear, in this discussion I'm setting aside clothing that is dirty, damaged, or immodest. What I'm talking about is this hierarchy of clothing where the suit and tie sit at the top and jeans sit somewhere at the bottom.
That there is a hierarchy here seems diagnostic to me. In Unclean I talk about Richard Shweder's idea that human moral psychology has three main domains: Community, autonomy, and divinity. A summary of the sorts of moral infractions and values from each domain (quotes from here):
Community: "based on moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy and interdependency, which is designed to help individuals achieve dignity by virtue of their role and position in a society."Looking at Shweder's domains it seems to me that questions about professional/appropriate attire are involved with the divinity domain. That is, is our dress commensurate with the "sacredness" or "level" of the situation, either the workplace or church? Here dress is a form of showing respect and meeting expectations of dignity and decorum.
Autonomy: "based on moral concepts such as harm, rights and justice, which is designed to protect individuals in pursuit of the gratification of their wants."
Divinity: "based on moral concepts such as natural order, sacred order, sanctity, sin and pollution, which is designed to maintain the integrity of the spiritual side of human nature."
So a lack of "professionalism" is a divinity violation. This is why we call casual attire dressing "down." With extreme forms of casualness we even say we are "slumming it." There is a sacred hierarchy at work here, with goodness and sacredness high on this dimension and the profane, base and vulgar low on the dimension.
That clothing is regulated by a divinity ethic isn't surprising. Clothing itself is a way we elevate ourselves above the animals. Clothing is trying to elevate and lift us up above the bestial. Consequently, feelings of sacred elevation become associated with clothing with various attire choices moving us up or down this dimension. Closer to the angels or toward the animals.
This is why, it seems, clothing can be so contentious in faith communities. Clothing has a sacred aspect to it and, thus, people fight over what is "appropriate" for communal worship.
But here's the problem with all this. As I go on to discuss in Unclean the divinity dimension is a source of what the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls "moral dumbfounding." Dumbfounding occurs when normative judgments have an "I know it when I see it" aspect. That is, the judgment is driven by subjective feelings rather than objective, empirical, and publicly available criteria. Thus trouble emerges when sensibilities differ. With only feelings to guide us how are we to adjudicate between different judgments about what is or is not appropriate?
You can't. You're stuck, communally speaking. If people have different sensibilities there's not a whole lot you can do. One group sees X as "inappropriate." Others disagree. And since the differences here are not matters of fact there's nothing available, objectively speaking, to convince the other side.
Which brings me back to the issue of professionalism.
When someone says "Jeans are not professional" what are they saying? At root, they are simply expressing a subjective judgment about what they think is a divinity violation. But as we've just noted, divinity violations are often in the eye of the beholder. To be sure, these judgment don't emerge out of thin air. There is tradition and norms, what people typically wear in any given situation or context. However, these norms drift and change over time. Moreover, not everyone agrees with the majority view. For example, a younger generation with different subjective feelings about what is or is not professional might come into conflict with the feelings of an older generation.
And who is to adjudicate between the two groups? If there is no objective reason why jeans or shorts at church are inappropriate then all we are left with are our feelings.
So what am I saying? I'm saying that professionalism and propriety are subjective rather than objective states of affairs. That these are "eye of the beholder" judgments, I "know it when I see it" judgments. Which means that, at the end of the day, we're just going to have to agree to disagree about what is or is not professional or appropriate dress in either the workplace or at church. It's a dumbfounding issue. People are going to disagree with each other and there is little we can do about that, no consensus in our future. We're just going to have to learn to live with each other.
Vive la différence.