In a week when we celebrate both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the second inauguration of our first black president, it’s interesting to observe the role of style on the civil rights movement.
When considering the attire of MLK and other leaders of the civil rights movement, it’s worth noting the importance of dressing in a way that commanded respect for these cultural influencers. Picture: Rosa Parks in her skirt suit being fingerprinted after refusing to move to the back of the bus; MLK in a fedora and well-tailored separates marching in Washington, D.C.; Malcolm X and his bow tie. While their messages may have stirred controversy, their clothes certainly didn’t.
The lesson of dressing the part for political change has resonance today. If you want your message, your voice, your movement to be taken seriously, you must present yourself in such a way that those in charge will stop and take notice. Take, for instance, the Occupy Wall Street protesters of the last year. How many diatribes against the OWS movement gleefully decried the participants’ dirty, hippie style? And really, is it any surprise that a protester dressed in a threadbare baja hoodie and unwashed dreadlocks had trouble finding common ground with a banker in a three-piece suit and wingtips?
Your appearance is the first impression other people have of you. It doesn’t matter if that person cares about “fashion” (or if you do either, for that matter); you’re telegraphing a message with every untucked shirt and untied shoelace. Conversely, clothes that fit, shoes that are polished and tied, and a hairstyle that’s under control (even if it’s long) all say, “I respect myself – and you – enough to make an effort to dress appropriately for the occasion. Please take me seriously.” Everyone from a college grad interviewing for his first job, to a guy meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time knows this is true. And if they don’t, they should.
It’s things like this that remind me: Thinking about style isn’t silly, and it’s not inconsequential. Rather, it’s worth paying attention to your appearance because how you look matters to other people, and that should matter to you.