Fashion Police vs. P.C. Police

An article posted on U.S. News’ Washington Whispers blog yesterday reports on a fashion briefing at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C. entitled “How to Dress for Success.”

Judging by many of the comments that follow, there seems to be a misunderstanding about the DIA, which was only exacerbated by the author’s first sentence: A week after women were cleared to serve in combat, Defense Intelligence Agency employees got a different message.” So, to clear up any confusion, most employees at the DIA are civilians and, therefore, do not wear uniforms. Now that that has been dealt with…

The crux of my problem with this “incident” is DIA director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s response, calling the briefing an “unnecessary and serious distraction” and “highly offensive.” Lighten up, General.

First of all, knowing the Defense bureaucracy, I’ll bet a Vera Wang* that the briefing was cleared by at least a half a dozen folks before it was given. Second, it was voluntary and I’m guessing it was probably given during a lunch hour. Third, presentations on dressing for success are a staple in the corporate world and, although I couldn’t find any figures on this, I’ll bet a closet full of Jimmy Choos that personal fashion consulting is a billion-dollar industry. So why is it so highly offensive to pass these tips on during a DIA employee’s down time but not in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company? Heck, even a  quick search revealed that this image consultant has worked with the military “to establish appropriate levels of dress and grooming critical to business relations.”

Of course, I wasn’t at this briefing so I can only go by the descriptions in the article and had I sat in on it maybe I’d come away with a different opinion, but I’ll bet a genuine Prada handbag that it all comes down to political correctness. The P.C. crowd has convinced some of us that there are no differences between men and women, especially on the outside. Now I’m a pretty liberated guy. While I’m not sure having women on the front-lines is such a great idea from an operational standpoint (upper-body strength being one of those differences between men and women that could get in the way), I fully concede that there are plenty of women who kick some serious butt (Grace Jones comes to mind), so I’m okay with it if said woman is able to function properly and able to carry a 200-pound wounded soldier out of harm’s way, not to mention her 70 pounds of gear. I also don’t think women need to wear makeup to be beautiful. I don’t, however, buy in to one US News commenter’s quip that she “would be furious if I was told that I wasn’t good enough being made in God’s image. Did God wear makeup, heels, and nail polish?” As someone else aptly responded, “Does God wear clothes? Do you think he takes a shower and uses soap? Just curious as to where the line is when we start thinking like this.”

A fashion consultant friend of mine likes to talk about inside-out transformation, and when she gives fashion advice to her clients it’s all about helping them to feel better about themselves in a very deep and transformational way. She rightly believes that all people are created beautifully in God’s image but that doesn’t mean we can’t accentuate our appearances with style. And we all know this is true. Is someone less of a person because they choose to go out in public with messy hair; a grease-stained, ill-fitting t-shirt; and a pair of thread-bare sweats? In a way, and at that particular moment, yes, because he is not living up to his full potential. If a friend of yours was constantly showing up looking like that you’d probably be a bit worried that his outward appearance was reflecting an inner struggle that was keeping him from being the most he could be.

So back to the DIA briefing, I suppose some of the comments could be considered mildly offensive. Certainly “Makeup makes you more attractive” said as a blanket statement to all in attendance is not good fashion advice because it doesn’t fit everyone’s personal style. But I’ll bet a full day at the NARS counter that many of those type statements were taken out of context. Others, like “brunettes have more leeway with vibrant colors than blondes or redheads” are just the facts. You can take offense, but it doesn’t change the reality that some color combinations are just better than others. Is it the end of the world if you’re not complementing your natural skin-tone? No, but it might be fashion advice worth considering; just as you’d probably consider combing your hair and brushing your teeth before you went out the door.

So General Flynn doesn’t need to apologize for the briefing and no one needs counseling (at least in this case) on “what it means to think before you act” except, maybe, the good General and his public affairs officer. (Although, I’ll bet a few hours in Nick Arrojo’s chair that any response from the DIA is just part of standard CYA operations and that the person who will probably get a talking to is the busybody employee who chose to air his dirty Levis to the Washington Press Corp.)

*Special thanks to my wife for making What Not to Wear a staple in our house so I could pepper this post with a bunch of haute couture references. To my male readers, I promise the next post will contain at least as many references to RPGs, ICBMs and APCs.