Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Power: Formality and Discomfort

    It is a curious thing, and it is one that transcends all cultural boundaries.  Historically the acquisition and holding of power causes an accretion to occur that leads to heightened formality, and eventually to immobility, or at very least a good deal of discomfort. We see this in all aspects of the journey of power.  The gathering of sway to oneself increases the number of people in the mix.  This results in more space being required to maintain authority.  Structures to house those in power become larger. As the number of people involved grows, the complexity of the process of dealing with all of them also grows.  And as this long process moves along, structures take on ritual meaning.  Underlings gather power too.  Their positions, and their duties become calcified, ritualized in their own way.
    Attire relating to the taking on of power goes on an identical trip.
    At the beginning of the transit, the person desiring or given power, is dressed in a way that does not distinguish them significantly from their peers. Their garments are commensurate with their wealth and station. There is no visible hint to what will occur.  From the moment that power is realized, taken on in earnest, the apparel changes.  First it is simpler, neater, and more well made.
    As the process gains momentum, the level of formality grows.  It becomes necessary to make visible statements to support the power gained.  Then the slow and steady increase in the number, volume, decoration, and elaboration of the garments begins.
    Think for a moment about the members of the classical Japanese court who layered robe after robe on top of each other to indicate rank and wealth, to the point where nearly any activity required assistance.
    Or perhaps a look at the French court before the revolution, where clothing for women especially had reached a level of sheer volume so great that the doors of Versailles had to be widened to accommodate them.  Special furnishings were devised that permitted more than one lady to sit down on the same couch.
    Even a look at the Roman elite gives us a glimpse of this process in operation.  The highest level people bore elaborately draped stoles that were yards and yards long, even though the climate doesn't require it heavy clothing very often.  And these lengths of cloth had to be draped by servants who were trained in the art of arranging them.
    And to these huge garments an endless panoply of decorations were attached.  Masses of jewels, costly embroideries, and acres of hand worked laces have contributed to the final outcome of near immobility that comes of the rise to power. 
     In the 1800s, society began to shift its attention away from the royalty, to those with wealth, regardless of how it was acquired.  As a result, the process of accretion moved from those with temporal power to those with financial power.  What happened next was the strict enforcement of social class by those who had money, by the creation of a vast, incomprehensible list of regulations covering every aspect of apparel.   That set of rules stood in place nearly a whole century before mechanization, the rise of feminism, and socialism began to chip away at those precepts.
    Is this concept of increasing levels of complexity and ritual that leads to immobility entirely dead? No.  It is merely transformed.
    How it operates now is described best by what those who work in the entertainment industry must endure.  Every appearance is carefully considered.  Racks and racks of things lent from designers of dresses, pants, skirts, blouses, shoes, bags and jewelry must be considered with the utmost care since multiple millions of people will not only observe the result, but comment on it.  And all of those considerations are made more complex because of agreements between the designer and the stylist who constructs that figurehead's image for the public.
    It's a far cry from what used to occur. Before the 20th century and the dawn of mass communication, errors of dress by those in positions of power were essentially invisible to the majority of the populace.  Monarchs, and others in positions of power dressed as they liked without reference to others. They created fashion, not adhered to it.  The reverse is now the case.  Famous folk do not create fashion, they support whatever is being presented, because profit is a more important source of power than royalty, or brilliance.
    Though in the current iteration literal immobility does not occur, another kind of immobility does. In order to hold power, whether that power be of brains, talent, politics, of sheer wealth, the image created is of prime importance. Supporting the image ties the holder of power into a tight knot.  Leaving aside the image is treacherous.  Keeping power means cleaving unto oneself a fantastical image of the self.  It means never being seen in the same thing twice, (if you are a woman).  It means denying yourself much variation of dress, (if you are a man).  How would we feel about a President who showed up at a major event in khakis and a rumpled tweed coat?
    We traded a physical discomfort for a psychological one.  We bargained away physical immobility for a less visible, but no less profound kind of constraint.
    There are exceptions of course.  It is especially true within the tech industry that a kind of fierce refusal to play the visible power game is common.   That said it is still the case for the vast majority of those who seek power, or have it conferred upon them, that their progress towards influence ends up hampering them both physically and psychologically. 

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