John Stuart Mill, Fashion, and Seinfeld's "Bra-less wonder"
While purporting to be a show about nothing, Seinfeld is, of course, a show about everything. Furthermore, it is a show that is very particularly about the difficulty of explaining why we are inclined to blindly accept the norms of society. One hundred fifty years before Seinfeld, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty observed that, "Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself."
Seinfeld's four protagonists watch as person after person bends, slips through, or outright breaks the social norms that have "enslaved [Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George's] soul." In the B-story for the Season 7 episode “The Caddy”, Elaine’s nemesis Sue Ellen Mischke flaunts social norms around bra wearing. When we first meet Sue Ellen, she is not wearing a bra at all. When Elaine eagerly reports the news to Jerry and Kramer at their coffeehouse her tone is exasperated, both condemning Sue Ellen for not following social rules and condemning herself for blindly following those same rules. Later, when 'gifted' with a bra, Sue Ellen proceeds to wear the bra beneath an open jacket, sans blouse. Elaine sputters to explain the correct way to wear a bra, saying, "Well, Sue Ellen, it's… it's not a top. It's a bra." Sue Ellen's retort – "Oh, I know" – is both knowing and slightly ominous. Here John Stuart Mill's words come to bear. "There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.” Sue Ellen is using the bra as functionally intended while asserting independence over social opinion.
That Sue Ellen is asserting independence over a social opinion about fashion is also significant. While Mill spoke about social rules, collective opinion, and individual independence as philosophical concepts, his words are never truer when applied to clothing and fashion. Have you considered that what you chose from your closet this morning is likely reflected in the people you are surrounded by? What does your piece of Society dictate to you about your clothing, even as you believe you are dressing as an individual?
I have a memory of my first day of ninth grade in 1988. For the first time, I was "in style." I proudly owned a polyester-silk blend vest fronted with brown and yellow floral Jacquard weave. I loved this vest and tried it on for days before the first day of school. On that first day, I entered my homeroom. I happily greeted my friends and frenemies. And we all wore a variation of the exact same vest. I overheard two teachers whispering, "Did they plan this?" I was not elated. I was, oddly, embarrassed. Even today, my heart sinks at the memory. Our individualism is tightly woven into our clothing, and at that moment, I may have questioned just what being "in style" meant. Today, I can reflect and ask just how much of my individualism was I willing to give over to Society's sartorial dictates?
The tug between fashion laws and individualism is Richard Thompson Ford's question in his new book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. Ford's classical liberal lens is a unique and welcome perspective on fashion history as fashion's historiography typically exhibits art historical or post-modernist critiques. This book is doubly unique as Ford does not focus on the more familiar sumptuary laws set by 20th-century totalitarian governments*. Instead, Ford considers the role of individuals in questioning unassuming state and social laws about who wears what and when and why. Yet it is these unassuming laws which make up our understanding of ourselves as individuals in a society.
* For studies on state-controlled sumptuary laws, I highly recommend JuanJuan Wu's Chinese Fashion: From Mao to Now and Nazi Chic?: Fashioning Women in the Third Reich by Irene Guenther.