Magazine | September 7, 2015, Issue

Does This Dress Make Me Look Oppressive?

My wife was standing on the shore of the Mississippi when the paddlewheel boat thrashed ’round the bend. She saw throngs of men in dark suits on the deck, standing at the railing, impassive. They all wore dark hats. At this point I had to interrupt and say, “I’m sorry, but this is a Twilight Zone episode. You saw the ship of the dead, lost in time.” She said she wondered if the dark suits meant they were all Hasidic Jews on an outing, but no, it was the Sabbath. Any other day, sure, you’re bound to see a paddleboat full of guys from the shul cruising down the Mighty Miss, but today?

Then she saw a woman in a long broad dress, waving. Something out of the 19th century. The men’s suits now looked lighter in the sun; a particular blue. But they were all the same color. The boat chugged past and headed south.

When she drove home she heard an explanation on the radio. At this point I had to interrupt and say, “I’m sorry, radio broadcasts that tidy up loose plot threads only happen on Gilligan’s Island.” But no, really: The radio said there was a convention of Civil War reenactors in town. That must have been it.

So where were the protests? Ah, you say, the Civil War issue was settled a few months ago when everyone agreed that the Confederate Hate Rectangle must be expunged, lest its particular arrangement of colors and shapes ignite another lunatic. Well, I’m not here to defend Johnny Reb. My great-grandfather lay wounded at Gettysburg for days until he remembered that he had some special white-privilege salve; he rubbed some on his injuries, sprang to his feet, and marched off to North Dakota to impose patriarchy all over some fallow land. But I wonder if that paddleboat trip shouldn’t be banned.

The uniforms, of course, encourage reverence for militarism and strengthen the idea that force solves anything. The boat’s wheel disturbs the water, and hence confuses fish, which might swim into its blades and be chopped. (Note: Birds minced by wind-turbine blades are a completely different matter; you can think of them as sacrifices to Gaia, who smiles on our efforts to go green.) The soldiers may have been on the winning side of the Civil War — to use the tired old notion that anyone can really “win” a war — but the sight of the Blues brings to mind the thought of the Grays, who fought for a racist cause. A Bad Thing can trigger a negative reaction, but a Good Thing can be worse because then it’s, like, denying the existence of the Bad Thing.

And everything before 1968 is a Bad Thing.

But there’s another reason for banning the reenactment boat ride. That woman. That dress. It could have been a hoop skirt. Last spring, the University of Georgia banned hoop skirts at social events, and an August 14 Washington Post opinion piece tells us why:

The Southern belle performances routinely staged on campuses across the South constitute choreography of exclusion. . . . In highly stylized renditions of femininity (which differ markedly from their day-to-day routines and visage), otherwise thoroughly contemporary collegians demonstrate their ability to “do” white Southern womanhood: the attire, the manners, the demeanor, the shared references and, above all, the lineage. Such performances stun with their continued ability to consolidate privilege and fly under the representational radar where masculine symbols have all but vanished. Discounted but powerful, these belle performances may not stem from conscious ill intent, but they are surely racial symbols as much as any noose or flag.

A burning hoop skirt would be the worst.

That’s why the boat trip my wife was forced to behold should be banned. It didn’t just make innocent people think of the Civil War against their will, it reminded them of the 19th century and, by extension, forced them to contemplate any number of centuries. And you know what? They’re all bad! They’re just horrible! Any sane person would turn away from history entirely, because it’s not a safe space, and costumes are a terrifying reminder of that, particularly if you’re a shrieking bundle of nerve endings of the type that constitutes the modern collegian. So: Sombreros are out, as they play to stereotypes that assume people in sunny places wear wide hats that shield them from the sun. Toga parties intertwine the phallocracy of ancient Rome with the Animal House rape culture of college life. The only safe dress-up clothing would be shapeless gray unisex outfits, which have no historical context and thus cannot provoke anything but optimism and a feeling of well-being, particularly if nitrous oxide is pumped into the party room.

Once we have done away with clothes, we can get to problematic food, such as the croissant. Here’s a pastry that was, some insist, designed to mock the symbol of Islam after the Christian victory at the Battle of Tours. Would we stand for a breadstick baked to look like a cross?

Well, sure, and we’d dip the tips in ketchup and put some parsley or a crown of thorns on one end, but that’s an act of protest against the theocratic culture, and also an awesome exercise in radically transformative semiotic reappropriation. In fact, we’re selling a lot of them at the campus bake sale with, like, little toothpicks for nails, and the proceeds go to the Awareness Project, which raises consciousness about Awareness. They’re having a fundraiser next week to send people to Cuba. They’re going in costume. Come as a 1960s revolutionary! Khakis, pistol holster, black boots. What’s that, you say? Che shot gay people?

Huh. I didn’t know he was a photographer. Cool!

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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