When Most People Are Non-Conformist, Being A Conformist Makes You A Non-Conformist

I was going to wear a tie, or at least a vest, to the bar tonight, but I didn’t want to have to explain myself, or suffer the hatred of strangers. I wore a tie and vest to Footsies a few months ago and it wasn’t a big deal because people know me, but a couple of us ventured over to Whiskey Pickle and I caught some twenty-something white kid giving an exasperated, disgusted look to his friend when the friend asked me a question, as though to say “ew come on I don’t want to have to talk to this guy.” I was, of course, the only person with a tie on in the establishment, and possibly the only male with buttons on his shirt, or who had used a razor to form straight lines around the edges of his beard.

I might have expected to stand out, in a tie, in a place like Whiskey Pickle, which has a kind of dark, grundge-looking-but-expensive atmosphere, or Footsies, which is the second-to-last-place you go out on a weekend evening. But I am now writing at Emry’s Garden in Troy, which is a restaurant with paintings on the wall and plants and flowers and candles; it is a date place. It is 8:51, the place is at 75% capacity, and had I worn I tie, I would’ve been the only male with a tie on. If I go to Ryan’s Wake, which is maybe the quintessential corner for classist conformity in Troy (see my blog about going to Ryan’s and feeling like I was having a Martini at a mannequin factory) I also had drunk dudes coming up to me apropos of nothing to yell-ask me why I’m “so dressed up” and if I was at a wedding.

I would venture a guess that if I went bar hopping in a tie in Troy this busy Friday evening, I would be the only man in a tie though I stopped into five “it” bars and thereby shared a room with over 1,000 people over the course of the evening.

Which is fine, styles change. Bell bottoms are popular again, having fallen out of style since 1996 when they were popular for two years, after having first been popular in the 60s. Those gigantic pants that are like tents instead of pant legs are popular again, as are mom jeans. The popular glasses right now have frames that my grandmother or grandfather would have worn in the late 1980s.

But there is something different about wearing a tie. It’s why ties are required to step onto the Floor of most state and national legislatures if you are male. It is why events are described as “black tie affairs.” Ties are wrapped up in the idea conforming.

I love the pictures from, say, pre-1965 of a family standing in a grocery store parking lot, and the man and son have a tie and the woman and daughter have dresses and heels. I’m sure there are people who despise those pictures. What they unpack from those pictures differs from what I unpack from those pictures. I identify with the father in the pictures and imagine how lovely it would be if “success” in life meant that I had a family and wore a tie to go to the grocery store, played in the bowling league on Thursday nights, and got along with the other fellas at the factory where I worked. That is an inclusive view of conformity. Others see the same picture and think of the reasons why they do not look like the people in the picture…they are the wrong race, or the wrong class, or the wrong gender, they imagine. And so, they think, fuck the people in the picture and fuck what they are wearing. They have an exclusive view of conformity.

An inclusive view of conformity, in my opinion, is one that has positive associations with society, crowds, the majority, democracy, numbers, tradition, repeated-experiences. An inclusive view of conformity welcomes anyone into the group who professes to share the values of the group. An easy way to profess to share the values of the majority is to dress like everyone else dresses. Since there have been many different kinds of shirts, shoes, pants and hats over the years, wearing-a-tie became the most obvious “badge” of conformity.

An exclusive view of conformity is one that has negative associations with society, crowds, the majority, democracy, numbers, tradition, and does not want to repeat experiences. An exclusive view of conformity is associated with self-identifying as outside-of-the-group, and, for one reason or another, the inability to become a part of the group. Because our very lives depend on feeling like we are a part of a group, a person with an exclusive view of conformity will try to join a minority group outside of the majority group from which they feel they are involuntarily excluded (alienated). They will therefore advertise that they are not part of the majority group, in order to attract others who are similarly alienated. One way to do that has historically been not to wear a tie…the symbol of membership in the majority. Then 60 years ago people began to advertise their rejection of the majority group more colorfully, with bell bottoms, miniskirts, flowers in the hair, bra burning, long hair for men and shaved heads for women, drag, intentionally being unkempt. In the 80s that presented as punk, and that became goth, and at some point excluded groups made up a greater percentage of the population than the supposed majority. And at that point—since everyone wants to be a part of a group—it became easier to advertise that one was part of the “in” crowd by dressing as a non-conformist, than a conformist. Which is like saying, in order to conform, one must now advertise how much they despise conformity.

It’s not so hard to understand. The most uncool thing is to try to be cool. Once you try to be cool, you’re not cool. So if your objective is to be cool, the most important thing is not to try.

This phenomenon first occurred to me about ten years ago when I was walking to work on a sunny Tuesday morning. I walked down Willet Street in Albany to State Street, and from there it was a straight shot, five blocks to the Capitol, where I worked. I was wearing a suit and tie, because it was a Session Day and I would have to go onto the Floor of the Assembly to assist with debates. A block ahead of me as I walked, I heard someone shout-singing. It was a black man around 35, shout-rapping off-key, and I couldn’t understand the words he was saying. He was walking with exaggerated movements as though mixing dancing and walking, gesticulating. His pants hung low, and he had a baggy shirt and red cap angled back and to the right. It was 8 am and my first thought was,

”Does this guy actually think he sounds good? That people are waking up and want to hear him shouting vulgarities through their open window?”

At the intersection of Lark and State, the man walked in front of traffic, not increasing his pace as the light turned green and dozens of commuters had to wait and tap their steering wheels as he casually ambled out of traffic, singing to the sky, ensuring that at least six or eight cars that would have made it through the green light had to wait through another red light before they could go.

“And doesn’t that guy realize how cliche he is being? Like, he is totally reinforcing the stereotype about black men with everything that he is doing this morning!” I thought to myself.

And then, maybe a block further, it clicked for me:

”That is the point!” I thought, “This man is intentionally flaunting that he is not a part of society. That is his schtick. Whatever circumstances led to him being alive this morning have led him to conclude that he will never be accepted as a member of majority society. Membership in majority society is predicated on being polite to other people—not speaking loudly outside another person’s window in the morning; quickening one’s pace when one is in the way of someone else; dressing in an inoffensive fashion (which includes at one extreme wearing-a-tie and at a minimum not-showing-one’s-underwear-as-their-pants-are-falling-off-on-a-public-sidewalk).”

That is when the high school microcosm of society occurred to me and I started thinking about “the goth kids”. In high school—I don’t know about everyone else but I thought—there is a huge pressure to conform to the elite group. There is a phenomenon called “popularity” which is highly correlated with “having money” because it is even more highly correlated with “physical attractiveness” and physical attractiveness includes “wearing cool clothes” and having nice teeth and skin and those things take money. If your caregivers can’t afford cool clothes, dermatologists and orthodontists and their durable medical equipment, or you are physically not an Adonis or Aphrodite, then you get emphatically excluded from the popular group. The best you can hope for is to be tolerated or patronized by popular kids before you are cast off into space without a tether. Which is almost as intolerable analogically as it would be literally. And just as, if you were floating in space without a tether, farther and farther from safety, you would accept the hand of any helper no matter how popular or cool they are, just so in society, when you are alienated and ostracized, you will accept the haven offered by any group, including one which has founded its membership upon having-been-also-previously-rejected-by-the-popular-kids. And, as stated above, in order to be accepted into your new group, you will signify your membership, which in this case means dressing emphatically opposite of the majority group (at a minimum no tie, at the other extreme dressing like a goth and adopting face tattoos, radical surgery to make your tongue forked or to remove organs, etc).

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. Most people do not adhere to that advice, and seldom examine their lives and thought processes and the karma that results from their habits. And so they harden into whatever character they had around 18 or 20 years old. “One’s ‘character’ is how one is likely to act in any particular situation,” Aristotle said. So most people, having not been cool (because a majority can never be cool; the main thing about “cool” is that it is constantly fleeting) distill into adults who weren’t “cool” in high school and who therefore identify as minority groups (even if they are white, male, straight, etc) and therefore adopt the signifiers of outside-group status. The majority of adults today, in other words, think of themselves as not-majority members of society. They signify their not-majority status by non-conformative clothing, speech, points of view. So we have this absurd situation where everyone, in order appear cool—in order to have the acceptance of others—must adopt a way of dressing and talking and opinionating which is opposite of some pretended majority which no longer exists.

And then I wear a tie on a Friday night, and become the symbol of the “majority”, the way a lightning rod attracts lightning, which is why the kid at Whiskey Pickle made the disgusted look when his friend asked me a question.

So here is why I am a non-conformist. I am listening to a drunk guy talk to another guy and he is being super loud and annoying. He has frizzy hair back in a bun and a beard and a black tee shirt and he is a bit overweight. He is white and male, but other than that he does not conform to the stereotype of Majority/hegemony/etc. He is yelling at the bartender saying “WE’VE MET LIKE FOUR TIMES!” He is The Average Guy These Days. And I despise him. He is disrespectful to everyone else who has to listen to him shouting. He is annoying to the female bartender entertaining him. I identify as his antithesis. To advertise that I am not like him I dress opposite to him. Dressing as a punk or a goth is not opposite to him, it is close to him on a spectrum. The only way to dress opposite of the average guy, nowadays, is to wear a tie. Because ties used to symbolize conformity, and still do kind of, but now everyone is a non-conformist, which I means if you want to conform, you must be a non-conformist, and I don’t want to, so I’ll dress like a conformist to illustrate my non-conformity.