“Dear Carol,” a letter from a reader began (grammar corrections all mine)... “Madam, liberate your mind from colonial shackles. Do not let their glamour subjugate your mind. You have adopted their names, their religion. Do you also have to jettison your social and cultural values?
I’m willing to believe that your great grandfather was more civilised than the ‘refined aristocrats’. As for aspiring to be invited to the same table as the Queen or US President, why I think it would not make you a happier person. I aspire to be a proud African, fair, kind, considerate to all around me. Please learn to love your African self.”
I will concede something here. Certain events attract certain crowds. If this were 1928, TIME magazine would label them socialites.
Now, journalism has its perks: the greatest being access – to places, people, things. Travel, so far, is rather lacking but the people: fascinating, intriguing, taciturn, unexpected, open, sometimes all at the same time, and things. I am allowed to know the unknowable.
Access has earned me the ambivalent, blurry moniker of socialite, never mind my actual, all-consuming full-time career and total lack of aristocratic credentials.
Several female colleagues have had this tag attached to their identities in one too many captions, an act that rankles them to no end when visions of hard-won deadlines dance in front of their eyes.
Men can be socialites too. Merriam-Webster says a socialite is “a socially prominent person.” Dictionary.reverso.net, “a socialite is a person who attends many fashionable upper-class social events and who is well known because of this”: freedictionary.com states “one prominent in fashionable society” and Thesaurus “a person whose actions and opinions strongly influence the course of events.”
By these definitions alone quite a number of high-profile event attendees would in some way fall under this category. And with indecipherable dress codes such as White Tie and Black Tie, we forget that while fashion plays a hugely decorative role, it is fundamentally a business. It generated $6 billion in 2011 in the US alone. This business is largely distributed by “socialites” whose sometimes unwitting role is to transmit fashion.
With great access naturally comes great responsibility. You wouldn’t think it but socialites – real, imagined or titled by public opinion - have duties.
Turning up fashionably and late, preferably both, is the least of those. I’ve had years of spotlit engagements and TV appearances on a skinny belt budget and after littering ‘sections of the media’ with my mug I was rightly plunged into an actual crisis. I literally had nothing to wear. This is where my fondness for dress codes blossomed.
They simplified the social rules of engagement. What to wear, when, how and why is a dilemma that has plaqued females since Eve gave a fig. More importantly, once this dilemma is out of the way, life moves on to the bones of the business. Again with more now expected from men, fashion is now their challenge too.
My reader accuses me of being shackled by glamour, a quality that though shiny and pretty with a touch of the hollow, counts for something.
I wouldn’t for a minute turn down an invitation to dine with the Queen. Not so her aristocracy might rub off, but because it is within these formal events that connections are made, deals are brokered, projects are raised, charities are discussed and opinion shapers, decision makers and power brokers gather.
Etiquette and dress code is the bomb detector and diffuser. Ask any diplomats, ambassadors, heads of state, state dignitaries, professionals, students at formals, graduations, christenings even funerals. There is nothing more dangerous than an unspoken social rule and not just when it comes to fashion.
Clothes matter, not because they cover nakedness. The more powerful you are, the faster the pace of life is and the busier we all get, the less time we have to assess peers, make friends and exert authority.
Clothes can be both camouflage and uniform, reveal as much as they hide. A dress code eliminates the need to explain yourself but the little touches you add and your unique interpretation of it counts as self-expression.
Clothes count, which is why prolific personalities (celebrities to politicians) are aggressively encouraged to tweak, modify or alter appearance, more so if they wish to count in the court of public opinion.
Stylists shape public perception and opinion in such subtle ways that few people realise this is an energy that can be harnessed. In a world where if you blink you’ll miss it, being fluent in fashion can, in fact, draw you closer to the decision-making table. And at this table, failing to observe protocol is in poor taste.