Pam Adams: A fitting tribute for next week's historic election
The election was nowhere near decided when Arnitria Karen Shaw of Peoria, Ill., declared Nov. 5, 2008, "National Formal Wear Day" in honor of Barack Obama.
Neither Sarah Palin nor her wardrobe's worth was in question. Hillary Clinton had not yet mentioned her "sisterhood of the traveling pantsuit."
There was (and still is) concern about the safety of a candidate Obama. Whispered fears of an assassination attempt have followed Obama throughout the campaign. But who would've guessed two alleged, would-be assassins arrested this week planned on wearing top hats and tails for the deed?
What we wear speaks to whom we are, whom we think we are and whom we want to be. That is, when what we wear is not representing an image to others. Don't begrudge Clinton her pragmatic, no-nonsense pantsuits. They are part of what she is. Palin's expensive new clothes wouldn't be a subject if we hadn't been told high fashion is what she is not.
As for white-tuxedoed white supremacists?
It was the furthest thing from Shaw's mind last June when she decided to dress up the day after Election Day. She was addressing another fear, one almost as persistent as the persistent fear for Obama's safety: How will black folks act if Obama is elected president? How will black folks act if he isn't?
Way back in June, shortly after the primaries ended, Shaw heard someone on television, she can't remember whom, musing about the possibility of black people acting up and acting out if a black man was elected president. She turned to her husband. "I've never heard that fear about an election before," she told him.
"National Formal Wear Day" was born at that moment. In a perfect world, no one on national television would reduce an entire race to the lowest element. In a more perfect world, a young black woman wouldn't feel the need to respond.
"Some people would say you don't have to take on that pressure, you don't have to be the world's role model," she says. Such is the disconnect, sometimes, between how black people see themselves and how black people are seen. Shaw is talking about elegant celebrations to make the ancestors proud; police departments around the country are preparing for unrest should Obama lose or win.
Calling for a national dress-up day may still seem like a simplistic response to a world more in need of high-style governing than celebrating in style. But Shaw, 34, taught English at Peoria's Von Steuben Middle School for three years before she became a student adviser at the school.
Dress rituals took on added importance, she says, as she watched seventh-graders' increasingly casual attitudes about appropriate attire. "The whole idea of dressing up is important to me. When you do something important, you dress up. When something important happens, you dress up."
Shaw put the idea on her MySpace page, promoted it in a small magazine she and friends publish for "the renaissance woman of color." She e-mailed friends and family, inviting them to join her in dressing to the nines on Nov. 5.
"As we enjoy history in the making, let us prepare to make liars of those who claim black people are going to 'act a fool' when Barack Obama is elected president," she wrote. "My husband is already picking out his tuxedo and, though I have yet to select a dress, I promise you I'll be wearing opera gloves and pearls."
She was exaggerating about the opera gloves and pearls, but the point goes back to something her grandmother used to tell her: If people are going to watch you, give them something extraordinary to watch.
A multi-cultural range of friends and strangers RSVPed by e-mail, telling her they were dressing up for work that day and dressing their children up for school. A friend who happens to be an event planner couldn't bear the thought of getting all dressed up with no place to go but work. So they decided to meet downtown, 6 p.m. next Wednesday at Chef Leo's, rain or shine, kids invited, regardless of an Obama win, lose or draw.
"It's not about black or white," Shaw says. "It's about how far we've come as a nation." She put it a little differently in her original invitation to friends:
"Let's make history and make it marvelous!"
Pam Adams can be reached email@example.com.