Mr Zuckerberg Goes to Washington (Part 2: On Wide Collars and Crooked Ties)

Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in the Senate and House of Representative meetings on 10 and 11 April have been covered extensively; what interests me here is a) the sartorial performance of Mr Zuckerberg himself, and b) the very interpretations of Zuckerberg’s performance by the fashion experts in the newspapers I mentioned in the previous blog. In other words, I am deploying a ‘double hermeneutics’ here that examines the meaning given by critics and commentators to the meaningful conduct by socially situated actors – in this case, Mr Zuckerberg in the Congressional hearings. To complicate matters further, I add a third level of analysis, that of the sartorial item in question itself and the social lexicons they mobilise. These three levels of analysis are then: the connotative code of the garment and the lexicons it mobilises, the vestimentary code the experts and critics refer to when explaining and ‘politicising’ particular sartorial performances, and the metalanguage of the social scientist (that would be me in this case) that communicates the inter-linked operation of the first two codes. All this builds on the semiotic theory of Roland Barthes, and I try to explain this a bit more extensively in a chapter on ‘Reading the Signs of Fashion’ in the forthcoming book on How to do Popular Culture in International Relations (Routledge 2018) edited by Mark Salter and Sandra Yao. In the following, I focus on the articles written by, and the vestimentary code deployed by, Robin Givhan of the Washington Post, and Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times.

Both Givhan and Friedman interpret Zuckerberg’s suit as a dress expressing ‘penance’ and ‘submission’. The suit, both fashion experts agree, becomes a ‘hair shirt’, sartorially supporting his apologies and promises of atonement. In Givhan’s words,

Zuckerberg did not look at ease. … He did not have the demeanor of the smartest and most impressive guy in the room. He looked like a 33-year-old man burdened with having to explain technology to legislators who are more than twice his age and don’t really want to hear about how users can change their settings; they just want him to fix what’s wrong with the damn thing.

Vanessa Friedman further contextualises Zuckerberg’s sartorial performance and the signification of the suit by pointing to the signified ‘seriousness’ and ‘business’ that were mobilised by Zuckerberg before.

This was not, of course the first time Mr. Zuckerberg has worn a suit. It’s just that it is seemingly possible to count on two hands the times he has done so: always on public occasions and (not counting his wedding) always when heads of state or other dignitaries are involved.

And she points to the already mentioned conscious sartorial strategy that he employs: to wear a tie to indicate the seriousness of his commitment to making Facebook a success in 2009. Both Givhan and Friedman therefore accept that Zuckerberg ‘kowtows’ to Congress. And this is certainly a valid interpretation that re-establishes the authority and the dignity of Congress and puts him into his proper place.

I would beg to differ, though.

There is some slippage in Zuckerberg’s performance that opens the space for a different interpretation. He clearly knows how to dress well and did so on some occasions. Writes Friedman, ‘over the years Mr. Zuckerberg’s suits have gotten skinnier, the ties narrower, the aesthetic less uncomfortable-kid-in-Dad’s-borrowed-suit’. And as Givhan observes,

Everything about his attire was perfunctory. He could have done better, and he has. He wore a better-fitting jacket back in 2011 during a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters with President Barack Obama. He looked rather elegant in 2015 when he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, attended a state dinner at the White House. Zuckerberg did not give Capitol Hill his sartorial all.

I think this observation actually leads to the heart of the matter: a perfunctory, sloppy performance with a suit slightly too large, a tie poorly tied, and a shirt collar too large for him. All this to my mind emphasises the performativity of his appearance: I am wearing this because I have to, but I don’t really want to. I am playing your game, but I don’t really mean it. And the somewhat less than impressive performance of all too many Senators and Representatives who all too clearly indicated their ignorance of social media in general, and Facebook in particular, further amplified a sense of a sartorial message of ‘mimicry’ on the part of Zuckerberg, of doing the minimum required not to give away his lack of respect for the assembly of mostly white old men. Congress actually lost some of its dignity that day; underneath a generic suit, the T shirt and the hoody loomed. And the market agreed: during the hearings, Facebook recovered its value after the prior dive its shares took on Wall Street.

One thought on “Mr Zuckerberg Goes to Washington (Part 2: On Wide Collars and Crooked Ties)

  1. Cool stuff. Dress conveys meaning always and in political settings it’s especially interesting. Thanks for this analysis. ☺️


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s