Over the course of October, a friend and I initiated a campaign to discuss masculinity, patriarchy, and rape culture. By rebranding an annual festivity called “Octieber” — where participants dress up in their most fancy, oldest and rarest ties and post selfies in a Facebook group everyday — we put our own little spin on the month to add some political purpose to the sartorial ordeal. We decided that we’d use the tie as a way of drawing attention to male privilege and the ways that patriarchy works to uphold gender based violence and inequality.
On September 30th at approximately 9pm, my roommate asked me if I would join him in “Octieber.” Almost as if it had struck him right in that moment, he said he wanted to wear a tie everyday of October and raise money for a women’s shelter. Since I own about 4 ties and I work as an educator for young boys discussing violence and inequality, naturally I complied without hesitancy. We talked it over briefly that evening without too much thought and decided that October would now be Octieber.
The next morning I woke up to find my roommate making breakfast in a collared shirt, a robust red tie, a beautifully hand made vest and a top hat. “So this is how it’s going to be,” I said to myself as I combed my closet for something to wear.
The month carried on with a lot of unexpected lessons and revelations. I’d like to share with you some of this newfound awareness:
1. The necktie is wrapped up in an expression of wealth and status.
I was curious about how closely related the necktie is to masculinity and realized I didn’t know much at all about how neckties came to be. After doing a little bit of research I learned that besides some military connections to Ancient Chinese soldiers and Ancient Roman soldiers — both contexts show examples of fabric worn around the necks as part of their uniform — the business style that has become the quintessential male uniform in the “Western World” and now most of the business world that participates in global capitalism as we know it finds it’s origins in the 15th century.
Through the evolution of shirt fashion, frilly and ruffled collars became a sign of wealth, since only the rich could afford this unnecessary use of fabric. As the fancy collars developed over the course of a few decades, The Ruff evolves to be a detached frilly ring of fabric separate from the shirt and used to demarcate class and status of the wealthy during the Renaissance era. Though the ruff was not reserved for only men, it maintained its connection to the rich, as well as the clergy.
This piece of fabric gradually evolved into scarfs and the cravats that were worn by Croatian soldiers in support of the French during the 30 Years War in the early 1630s. (http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/03/the-origins-of-the-neck-tie/)
It wasn’t until the industrial revolution and an influx of factory labour where we see a working class necktie develop. The long necktie of the “white collar” workers shortens as “blue collar” workers begin to tie their ties closer to the neck to prevent them from being wrapped up in machinery. The bow-tie therefore finds its origins as a signal of the working class. The “black tie” movement in late 19th century and the rise of tuxedos and wealthy fashion enthusiasts in the 20th century quickly appropriated the bow-tie, again making it a sign of upper class men’s attire.
Regardless of the many different ways neck garments appear across the social historical imagination, it appears for the most part to carry class connotations. And this becomes obvious when we look at it under a modern lens. The business suit and tie is undeniably a signal of a man with status and power. Even those without social and economic prowess wear ties on occasions where the expression of masculine status is expected or required of them.
When we walk downtown, we see businessmen in ties but do not often see farmers in ties. When we have to go to court, be in the presence of government officials, when we graduate from an institution, whether it is an elite university or even preschool, we tell boys and men to wear a tie. Whether we believe it or not, there is a sense of power and prestige that accompanies this neck fabric and as men of today, we embody the social context when we don this fashion.
2. Other people treat you like you’re important when you wear a tie, AND, we like it.
Being a handsome young white man in a city provides me with lots of smiles and nice attention from strangers. This is something I feel often as part of the privilege that accompanies my body. But, wearing a tie and looking “dapper” boosts this attention ten-fold. I noticed immediately how walking down the street in my tie garnered way more smiles and head nods than even I was used to. This is why I wanted to learn more about where the necktie finds its origins because clearly there’s something connected to it that makes other people feel like you are important.
Upon further reflection I realized that on top of how my appearance impacted how other people treated me, I also treated myself better when I wore a tie. I had more confidence, I stood up straighter, and I walked with a sense of entitlement that I wasn’t at first conscious of. It took me a few days to realize that people were looking at me differently not just because I was wearing a tie, but also because I was emanating a sense of self worth that almost demanded respect from other people. I felt like a walking billboard for male power.
What this tells me is that not only does being a cis-man or at least appearing like a cis-man connect you to the social power that patriarchy affords you, but being associated to this power makes you feel powerful. When you feel powerful you act powerful. This can be a good thing, but this kind of power cannot be dissociated from power structures. If we connect the power I feel to the fact that I’m a white man in a white supremacist hetero-patriarchy and the feelings I get when I wear a tie to its history of class and status expression, then being a man in a tie and the power I feel is a representation of the power imbalance inherent in our society.
My power = someone else’s lack of power.
3. Fulfilling appearance expectations is labour
For the month of October, I experienced a little bit of what a lot of women experience on a daily level: the time that it takes to put together an outfit and a look that is expected of me makes getting ready in the morning a laborious task.
After two weeks, I didn’t want to wear a tie anymore. I didn’t want to have to preplan what I was going to wear the night before. I didn’t want to make sure my pants and shoes matched my shirt and tie. I didn’t want to make sure my hair was done well enough to support the fanciness of the rest of my outfit. All of this took extra time. Sure, you can ultimately wear a tie with anything, but I wasn’t about to go to work in a t-shirt, checkered tie and ripped jeans looking like Avril Lavigne (not because Avril Lavigne isn’t cool, but because my sk8ter boi dayz are long behind me).
I know that not all women conform to social pressures that dictate feminine beauty standards; and I know that not all women are merely conditioned to participate in femme fashion but participate willingly with agency. But, a lot of women made comments to us like, “now you know how women feel, having to put yourself together everyday is hard work.” Though we experienced only a small taste of this, it made us reflect on the pressures many women feel and the labour that it takes to uphold certain gendered expectations that I wasn’t regularly used to.
4. Talking about sexual assault is triggering for survivors
A large portion of our campaign was to share our outfits and also our reflections online for our communities. We wanted to garner enough attention to not just spread a conversation, but to get folks to donate to a women’s shelter and rape crises center. What we didn’t realize was that these daily posts were also daily reminders for survivors of sexual assault that their traumas are alive and well.
We did not take women’s experiences and opinions into account while working out our plan of action; mostly because we didn’t have a plan of action. The spontaneous aspect of our actions and the privilege we have as cis-men without our own experiences being assaulted or abused lead to women feeling triggered by our posts and our presence in our workplaces. We absolutely should have discussed our ideas with our friends and communities first so that we knew how to spread the message in the most healthy and least violent way.
We’ve been advised to include trigger warnings in the future and to use a website as our outlet so followers on social media can choose to view the content or not.
5. Men get a lot more praise for saying the same things women say
For myself, I’ve been engaging in this conversation for a few years now. I started sharing articles about rape culture and gender based violence and working with other men to raise awareness about healthier masculinities and actively learning violence prevention. Though I have experienced the deterioration of friendships with men in my life due to us having fundamental disagreements about the human condition, I have received a ton of praise for my “ally work”.
My roommate was quite new to the publicity of being active on social media as a male ally in this regard and the amount of attention and “ally cookies” he received was overwhelming. Admittedly, we both like this. It feels good. Likes and followers and messages and hugs and support is encouraging and empowering. But it’s also unbalanced and an ego trap. We had conversations together about these feelings and recognized together that we weren’t thanking the women in our lives for doing this work. We needed to seriously understand that women have been doing this work forever with very little praise, and actually, for women, doing this work can bring about more violence.
We needed to continuously check in with each other to make sure our motivation behind our actions were genuine and not based on self promotion and ego inflation. When engaging in so called “feminist work” as men, it’s important that we work specifically with men and talk about the ways dominate narratives about masculinity enforce violence against women as well as a myriad of ways it contributes to the corrosion of our collective health as a community. We are not here to educate women about patriarchy.
6. People want to have this conversation
We both had multiple experiences where women disclosed their experiences being assaulted by men in their lives. I had women I didn’t know and friends I know very well openly share with me their pain and anxiety. I had men reflect with me about how we don’t experience the fear of being raped or assaulted in the same way women do. I had a few men admit to me that they’ve probably done inappropriate things to women at some point in their lives. I had more men this month tell me that they like what I share and what I do than have said that in the last 5 years of my life.
At the end of the day my roommate and I would reconvene at home and promptly share stories from our day. Every single day we had experiences with strangers or friends that moved us deeply. Using the attention that being a man in a tie gets you to redirect the conversation into one about male privilege and rape culture works. What seems too nuanced to be connected actually has profound associations. And for the most part, guiding people into this conversation has wonderful results.
I’ve built stronger emotional connections with people in my life. I’ve had challenging and inspiring conversations with men. I’ve learned more about my own privilege and actions. I’ve tried to hold myself and other men more accountable. And collectively we raised over $3500 for Women Against Violence Against Women shelter and rape crises center in Vancouver, Canada.
Octieber, Movember, Whatever.
What started as a moderately silly idea about “dressing up in a tie everyday” turned into a rather successful awareness and fundraising campaign about social political consciousness and responsibility.
We’ve partnered with WAVAW to run Octieber as part of their annual fundraising plan and have a team of supporters who are dedicated to participating with us next year. If the founders of the Octieber Facebook group are upset with us for appropriating their idea, I’m not too worried about that. Maybe the 500+ folks in the group will use their interest in sartorialism to express their support for gender equality and ending violence against women.
For someone who has not participated in Movember for the last few years, because of my personal feeling that it lacks a critical analysis of masculinity in general, Octieber provided me with far more opportunities to spark deep conversations about men’s health. If anything, Octieber offers us an opportunity to commit to a task, engage in critical discussions and fundraise simultaneously. It does this by drawing attention to one of the root causes of violence in our communities and attempts to bring folks together across gender lines in order to challenge the ideologies that inform our behavior.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Creative Commons