In an effort to procrastinate on the promised treatment of that dog book, I’ve decided to take a little time to dissect another youthful phenomenon. Today it’s not cheap-ass broken friendship hearts, however. No, this topic is even more worthy of copious eye-rolling and the activation of gag-reflexes. I’m talking about high school students who go to dances together wearing matching outfits.
I’m almost nauseated thinking back on it now–realizing the implications. The market-place/political economy of securing a date for the dance, and being able to identify them as your date with visual cues. Cultural capital made materially concrete through dress. The (gendered?) performance of mutual ownership…turning “relationships” into a parody of themselves. I am ashamed to have actually participated in such displays. (Although I am rather proud for having once done it by wearing a “mens” shirt. Take that, gendered expectations!)
The tradition of dates wearing similarly colored clothing (or a corsage/boutonniere) to dances all seems to boil down to a social performance of togetherness and mutual ownership. Making visually obvious the fact that these two people came to this dance with one another. It “marks” your date as yours. This performance is so that others recognize these two people as being together–if only for the evening. I wonder at what point this matching is for the couple themselves…the chance to recognize themselves in the other and vice versa via the very obvious medium of clothing (a representation or manifestation of their inner emotional connection, if you will)…and at what point it becomes more about the outward appearance of togetherness. My guess is that this phenomenon is heavily weighted toward the latter. It’s mostly about the public’s perception of two people as a couple. The assumption that two people are receiving recognition of their togetherness is made salient in the very performance of this sartorial togetherness. TOGETHERNESS!!! (must. find. synonym.) Ahem.
One aspect of this phenomenon that bears discussion is the fact that all these school-sanctioned social functions are in an effort to play at adulthood. As one of my more arrogant professors smugly loved “revealing” to us, the Prom is in many ways a practice wedding. But these dances-as-social-spaces encourage couples to perform adulthood to a cartoonish degree. What real adult couples make a conscious, agonizing effort to match their wardrobes at social functions? (Irritating ones.) Sometimes this type of couples-dressing is sanctioned, but it’s all about context. Perhaps the most “allowable” social occasion is that of Halloween, but even then adults who match one another can be a bit much. Especially those who are romantically involved. Okay. We get it. You’re together. Enough already. But if we take high school dances as opportunities for young adults to “practice” being actual adults, it seems odd that they perform imagined adulthood to such a hyperbolic degree. Maybe you have to over-do it before you can do it, do it. (Control yourselves.)
The other adult social context in which sartorial coordination is sanctioned, even encouraged, is the wedding. This is the ultimate ritualized performance of couple-dom in our culture, and wedding parties often don similar colors, if not identical outfits. This, it need not be noted, is a special occasion. As is the school dance (albeit a more frequent one). If school dances are a shadow of the ultimate couple ritual, then matching the colors in one’s outfits makes a certain amount of sense. This is, after all, playing at being recognized as being together: practice for the ritual where you perform your together-forever-ness in front of your sacred social circle.
So the color-coordination teenagers endure can be accounted for quite easily. What I cannot fathom an explanation for is why the matchy-matchy gets so overblown at Sade Hawkins dances in particular. Is there a worry that because the girl asked the boy, it won’t be pheromonically obvious that they are together? (That’s stupid and I would never argue that.) The most I can work out is that it somehow off-sets (or complements) the relative informality of the dance. The fact that the girl is supposed to ask the guy, that the traditional gender roles are reversed, seems to be a mere correlation. Why would a switch of gender hierarchy entail the hyper-matching of clothing? Couples often literally wear the same thing, rather than simply matching color-schemes. At the Sadie Hawkins dance, there’s no mistaking who asked whom. It’s an aggressive sign of mutual ownership, commemorated forever in an embarrassing photo in front of a cheesy, themed backdrop. But exactly why the hyper-matching occurs at the informal Sadie Hawkins dance is a mystery to me. So if anyone wants to venture a theory that helps explain why this happens, I’d love to hear it.