Mr Zuckerberg Goes to Washington (Part 1: On Grey T Shirts and Blue Suits)

Last week, the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg came to Washington, DC, to give testimony in two Congressional hearings about all things Facebook. As I expected, the fashion experts and critics of the Washington Post, New York Times and other publications (including, interestingly enough, VOGUE) stepped up to the plate and reviewed his sartorial performance in the hallowed chambers of Congress. Equally predictable perhaps were some of the responses to these reviews and their all too common and familiar dismissal of fashion as a relevant social phenomenon. To cite just some examples, Robin Givhan, the fashion critic of the Washington Post, received the following comment on her Twitter account:

@maryguiden commented ‘Usually ❤️ reading @RobinGivhan but this seems like a personal attack. Why take @Official_Markfb to task for wearing what you deem is an ill-fitting suit? And because he’s not playing into “political theater”? #smh’.

@UAJordan1997 contributed @NPR@RobinGivhan Just spent 10 minutes discussing Zuckerberg’s suit. THIS 👏IS 👏NOT 👏NEWS’, following it up with ‘You’ve reduced arguably the biggest issue facing us today to a story about a crooked tie. That’s not an angle that deserves primetime news’.

These tweets reflect and reproduce the all too common notion about fashion as irrelevant and frivolous with regard to the serious business of politics. How we dress, how social and political agents dress should not concern us too much; their sartorial preferences are part of their personal choices, and therefore not accountable to the court of public opinion. The funny thing is, though, that Mark Zuckerberg himself is very conscious of his fashion choices and the messages they convey. As a New York Times article describes it,

Certainly Mr. Zuckerberg has publicly acknowledged, a few times, the very conscious way he uses clothes. Just because he is known for wearing the same thing every day doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about fashion or how what he wears gets interpreted. In fact, it is exactly the opposite.

Whilst the origins of his ‘Washington Suit’ apparently have not been discovered yet, we do know that his ‘grey T shirts’ are actually Brunello Cucinelli and cost a whopping $295 a pop. So much for ‘casual’… As for his general sartorial strategy, it is worth listening to Zuckerberg’s own voice. Here he explains his preference for nowadays constantly wearing grey T shirts:

I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community. And there’s actually a bunch of psychology theory that even making small decisions around what you wear, or what you eat for breakfast, or things like that, they kind of make you tired and consume your energy.

Prior to this, and reflecting a more tenuous situation for Facebook, here is his explanation why he actually wore a tie frequently:

‘I wanted to signal to everyone at Facebook that this was a serious year for us,’ he wrote in an post about the tie wearing. ‘My tie was the symbol of how serious and important a year this was, and I wore it every day to show this’.

One might therefore assume that coming to Washington in order to be grilled by Senators and Representatives (mostly a bunch of old white guys most of whom did not have the faintest clue what Facebook was all about) was another ‘serious’ moment that required dressing accordingly.

So @maryguiden and @UAJordan1997, Mark Zuckerberg himself proves you wrong. Dressing up or down for him is a semiotic strategy that he very consciously deploys. Moreover, this is not even something peculiar to Mark Zuckerberg. As Peter Thiel writes in his 2014 book Zero to One, ‘It’s a cliché that tech workers don’t care about what they wear’. And ‘everybody from slackers to yuppies “curates” their outward appearance’.

So we should follow Robin Givhan’s journalistic instincts and follow her down the rabbit hole of sartorial politics and political sartorial code. That she and most of the other commentators and critics get it wrong (or at least not quite right) is the topic of my next entry.

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