Saturday 22 November 2014

Lessons from a scientist's shirt

Uproar over Rosetta physicist's shirt shows what you wear is as important as what you say
By Vanessa Friedman, Published The Straits Times, 21 Nov 2014

New York - Matt Taylor is a British project physicist of the Rosetta mission, the team that landed the first probe on a moving comet last week, hence furthering the cause of human knowledge and space exploration.

He is also the one who appeared on BBC Breakfast and a European Space Agency live stream to give updates on the mission while wearing a bowling shirt emblazoned with a print of numerous bodacious women in cleavage-baring poses wearing skin-tight outfits and toting guns - and bearing an astonishing resemblance to the girls of the just-released Pirelli calendar.

And with that, he became a lightning rod on social media for outraged comments and diatribes about sexism, women in science, inappropriate attire and so on.

The controversy, also known on Twitter as #shirtgate and #shirtflap, became so heated that last Friday, Taylor took it upon himself to issue a public apology during a Google hangout in which he both teared up and demonstrated his own penitence by wearing a banal navy zip-up hoodie.

Elly Prizeman, the artist and friend of Taylor who created the shirt, also explained its non-controversial origins in a tweet and a longer blog post. It had been a birthday present and she thought Taylor was being nice by wearing it in public.

And then Mr Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, defended Taylor via a column in The Sunday Telegraph.

According to Mr Johnson, Taylor was "bombarded across the Internet with a hurtling dust cloud of hate, orchestrated by lobby groups and politically correct media organisations".

Hyperbole aside, I think the real moral of this particular story exists beyond personal politics and is fairly straightforward and universal: What you wear in public matters. Whomever you are and whatever you do.

Certainly the London mayor, with his signature rumpled appearance, which works effectively to make an Oxbridge member of the intellectual elite appear accessible to a large chunk of the local electorate, should understand.

You can argue that to complain about Taylor's attire simply exposes our own stereotypes of scientists, which involve white lab coats and looking geeky.

Yet this pre-supposes it was Taylor's intention to use his platform to send a message about professional sartorial rule- breaking. And there is nothing about his actions or statements over the last few days that would indicate that such an opportunity ever crossed his mind.

He seemed simply thrilled about the space probe and its implications.

His point was scientific, not sartorial. And that is why he should have thought twice about anything that risked shifting the focus away from that conversation. Or someone at the space agency should have thought it through for him.

His mistake was not to have understood the inextricable connection between his self-presentation and his official presentation.

This is not reductive or demeaning: it is realistic.

There is a reason most professions have developed the equivalent of an unspoken uniform: It allows clothing to become a backdrop to action, as opposed to a distraction. The navy suit on pretty much every male world leader during the recent G20 summit may have been boring, but it meant the story was about the substance of the debate.

This does not mean that Taylor need have repudiated his entire aesthetic identity by appearing in a pinstriped suit and white dress shirt on the space agency live stream, but perhaps a Hawaiian shirt with, say, a solar system print would have been the more broadly relevant choice.

Clothing is part of any message delivered personally.

This is not a new idea - public figures have considered the semiology of their appearance since Cleopatra - but it is ever more important in the social media age.

It is fully accepted that people should consider their remarks. Why should they not also consider the shape in which they are, literally, framed? It's not really such an alien idea, after all.

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