Okay, I’ll admit it: this town terrifies me. New York? No sweat. LA, SF, Chicago? It’s all cool – I’m happy to step out onto the pavement and just cruise, finding a groove and following it where it leads. But DC – something about DC gives me the cold sweats. No, it’s not crime (should I be worried about crime?) – it’s something much harder to make sense of: it’s power.
I understand how New York works: money and celebrity do what they very predictably will, and you can tell who or what they are from a mile down the street. You can generally tell what effect the people in that car, or that building, are having on your life, and if you don’t watch TV, can generally dismiss that effect as negligible.
Not so with DC. I mean, there are the tourists here, which is what I’ve always been. But then there are those people in suits. They work at agencies. They control stuff I can’t even pretend to understand, that will affect my future, and the future of the world in ways I can’t even imagine.
And they have a language – a language worn literally on their sleeve, but one I can’t comprehend. Because in DC, clothes really do make the man. There’s an insane adherence to hierarchy and protocol here, and it’s reflected in the language of what you wear and how you wear it. A language in which I am completely illiterate.
Devon speaks their language. While grabbing my beloved tweed blazer, I mentioned to her that I’d been invited to a journalism awards reception; she shook her head and ‘tisk’ed: “You’ll have to bring The Suit.”
“Can’t I just wear my tweed and a nice tie?”
“No. The Suit.”
“I can’t play the quirky Californian?”
Back in California, we have an impoverished version of this language, which we use rarely, if at all: we wear our jeans and t-shirts and say “Hey – take me for what I can do, not what I look like.” Casual is a badge of honor; it says, “I’m good enough, that I can dress how I want.”
Here, it doesn’t say that. In this crazy transient city of constant political churn, you need to know in a glance where in the sociopolitical pecking order the guy across the table stands, and the language they’ve settled on to express that is clothes.
An old friend who’s been through this a few times explained it all to me: when you don’t dress the part, you’re not saying “I’m not going to play your game.” Because it’s not a game. You’re saying “I don’t give a *!@% about you and your stuff.” Where, “your stuff” means those guys dying in Afghanistan. To the guy on the other side of the table, it’s not just him that you’re insulting, it’s the American people he’s sworn to serve and protect, with his life and the lives of others. This is not a game of fashion, and he’s not playing.
She knows a lot of this first hand: insufficiently polished shoes, a jacket “without enough structure” – they’re subtle things for those of us from the left coast, but here, they speak clearly of intent, accidental or not. Ignore them? Yow. You’d do better trying to high-five the Queen.
Of course, if you’re a tourist, as I’ve always been in the past, non of this matters. But I’m here on business, so you can see how I might work myself into a tizzy. Then again, tomorrow I’m meeting with journalists, who – while living and sometimes dying by their craft – generally spend plenty of time outside the beltway, among people with their own peculiar languages. They’re bound to be understanding of my clothing ineloquence. But you know? I’m still gonna wear The Suit.