All buttoned-up

A slightly odd article in Slate about how shirts with the top button buttoned signify a retarded person. I mean, yes, it's true (in movies if not in life), but doesn't really seem article-worthy.

The author, June Thomas begins with this anecdote:
While out on an errand not long ago, a woman stopped me at a crosswalk and asked what day it was. An odd question, but even odder was the way she asked: She crouched slightly as she spoke, even though we were the same height, and her words came out slow and overpronounced, as though she were taking a sobriety test. I answered—I'm a helpful sort—and turned away. But before I could leave, she reached out and said, "Good job!" in a peculiar sing-song voice. She seemed perfectly normal, well-dressed and with a male companion in tow. It suddenly struck me that she thought I was developmentally disabled. But why? When I got home, I stared at the mirror for a bit and found my answer: It was that interval between seasons when it's breezy but still too warm for a coat, so I'd donned a cardigan and buttoned my shirt all the way to the top. This was unwise. A fully buttoned shirt is the universal costume symbol for special.

(As an aside, see the last sentence as an example of what I argued earlier - that any well-meant word used to replace "retarded" will become pejorative).

A weird inference to draw. Might it not be the case that her interlocuter was mentally retarded, even if she "seemed perfectly normal"? (As I've written elsewhere, while my son does not look quite normal, his condition is also not as dysmorphic as other conditions that actually cause much less severe retardation - I could easily see people looking at him and thinking he was a bit funny-looking, but that nothing was wrong.) After all, if one really wants to know what day it is, one usually would choose to ask someone who is not mentally retarded. Also, couldn't it be the case that this woman have had any other reason for thinking the author was retarded?

However, one thing Thomas said struck a chord with me. It's her explanation of why this has become a such a cultural signal:
Cory Monteith, who plays Glee's singing quarterback, Finn, offers insight into the possible origins of this peculiar shirt style. In a "Behind the Glee" featurette, he says that when the other glee club members put on buttoned-up polo shirts and suspenders for the wheelchair number "Proud Mary," it's an "hommage to how Artie likes to dress himself—or how his mother likes to dress him." Eyrich says the mom thing was Monteith's "own perception" rather than her or Murphy's concept, but it is astute. One reason developmentally and physically disabled people dress differently from their peers is that their mothers play a big role in their wardrobe choices. Parents are more resistant to changing styles, and they're more likely to stick to stores like JCPenney rather than venturing into Hop Topic—so a kid like Artie would likely look out of sync with fashion.

I'm not sure if this is why the top-button-buttoned specifically seems to have become a symbol (I mean, most moms are aware of this signal, or it would be an ineffective signal). But I was actually thinking about this in terms of haircuts. I was wondering to myself why it is that most of the mentally retarded people I see have, well, bad haircuts. And the answer recently that recently hit me was what Thomas has come up with. I cut my toddler's hair at home. And, quite frankly, a haircut given at home to someone who can't sit still is not usually the height of fashion.

So I may not be able to do anything about that. But I do plan to have my toddler son, when he's old enough, help pick out clothes for my baby. My littlest guy has suffered, and will suffer, enough indignities in life. He does not need to go around dressed as his mother sees fit!

1 comment:

  1. Not entirely on-topic, but I think Slate is often in the habit of publishing articles on subjects so picayune as to make one wonder why they bothered.