Monday, July 1, 2013

The Fabric of Masculinity: Professionalism, Fraternity Letters, and Family Roles

                     I thoroughly enjoy competition, watching others compete in particular. Project Runway, a reality-television competition to find the next top American fashion designer, has taken up the free time I have between visiting my family in Texas and traveling the U.S. I was excited to see the creativity that all the contestants brought to the show, more for the designers that played with gender roles and designed clothing with androgyny in mind. Somewhere within the last couple of seasons, I began exploring how clothing has been used to shape masculinity and the identity of ‘man’ at work, in college, and in family roles.
                   The design and style of our clothes indicates much more at first meeting than we are willing to admit. Much like in “The Devil Wears Prada” movie when Miranda (played by Meryl Streep) talks about how fashion choices from ‘the top’ trickle down to the everyday consumer, so too do the designs of Giorgio Armani, Donatella Versace, and Kenneth Cole (among others) shape the way men should look for their status. The sociologist in me could spend years observing cities like New York and Los Angeles to formulate how men display themselves and what their choices in clothing indicate to others around them. What does the whimsical tone of a print do for pants that it does not for a shirt? Would a man be followed at a department store for wearing baggy clothes regardless of styling? What outfits are appropriate for all men, and what outfits are designed for certain occasions and people? Professional dress (for the most part) seems to have the clearest expectation of men.
                  Forensic competitions (literary interpretation, extemporaneous speaking, moot court, and the like) shaped much of what my idea of professional dress is supposed to be. Simple formula for the guys: wear a suit, complementary shirt and tie, dress shoes, and a watch if jewelry was necessary. My time at the University of the Pacific has shaped the image of a student affairs professional to be different than the consulting I received and conducted in competition. When I interviewed for the position as a residence director, I wore my suit and three shirt and tie combos each day I was on campus. I wanted the competitive edge, to which I met full force against the other male candidates invited to campus. I laugh at the realization that I wore my suit less than five times this past year. I spent a great deal of time experimenting with professional standards and gender lines that were much more flattering and comfortable than stiff dress shirts and boxy blazers. I think it’s commendable that the men in leadership roles at Pacific each have their own distinct images that reflect their personalities, ranging from bowties to polo shirts. The ‘minimal requirement’ approach to workplace dress is likely not a standard at every institution, and it would be nice to see professionalism as a whole loosen its belt and unbutton the collar every now and then.
                  A particular image of masculinity in college I have noticed over others is that of a fraternity man. Pacific’s social fraternities each have their own image on campus, and within them an expectation for how their members live up to that image. Living in a fraternity house as a residence director has its clear moments where masculinity and manhood are shaped and challenged. The brothers will size each other up for competitions and recruitment, and have discourse on how their image among the other fraternities is more or less masculine based on the ‘expectations’ of men’s fraternities. Partying, academics, and relationships with sororities were the three major indicators of a fraternity’s success at the beginning of the year for some of the men. It’s a formula that I imagine is negotiated nationwide across fraternities. A conversation sustained throughout the year involved how to accept the gay, bisexual, and transgender community into fraternities on campus without losing masculinity and brotherhood. (Suggestions that arise are definitely welcomed, as I am still formulating with campus partners and national groups if this is a possible reality.) Aside from the letters themselves, the style and color of fraternities’ paraphernalia has become a sign of masculinity through the upholding (or lack of) traditional expression. Some fraternities argue within their own membership the allowance of clothing with letters on it to be in any other colors besides that of the organization. Certain clothing styling has also turned the image of a fraternity man into a ‘frat star’, bringing both anger and excitement for almost all organizations. I see students come to college and change their wardrobe based on the types of clothes that their preferred organization wears. A power of clothing that I presume someone has research on, though I have so far been unable to discover.
                  If I asked you to dress the typical father figure in America, what would he be wearing? What about his son? Does a brother have different style of dress from his dad if he has only sisters? What if there is no father? How does the son’s image change then? The media paints quite the picture for all family roles involving men. In many ways, the college environment has a hand in shaping what these can and will be for their male population. After this past week, I am excited to see society and colleges explore and further the role of husband in the family. After the monumental wins for marriage equality at the Supreme Court with Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor, same sex marriage will be supported federally in several states and the District of Columbia and be restored in the state of California. Will this produce catalogs for weddings that have male couples on the cover? (I sure hope so.) Families built and born into will hopefully be engaging in dialogues on how marriage equality has and will shape the fabric of society.
                  I challenge all who read this to ask themselves the following question: if I could pick a fabric that embodied masculinity, what would it be? What qualities would it have? Is it the star of the outfit, or does it have a supporting role? While I am still picking up the trade of clothes making and design, I have come to realize that fashion is a tool of expression that has been called a tool of oppression. Dividing clothes under two categories might be a way to flatter different sexes and genders, though having buttons to a shirt on the right can make all the difference to someone raised to wear them on the left.
One stitch makes all the difference.

Juan Martinez is a second year residence director for Greek Life at the University of the Pacific. They are also a second-year higher education graduate student. Follow them on Twitter (@pacificjmar) and Blogger (

No comments: