I stopped wearing collared shirts years ago. This started when my wife bought me a shirt with a “banded collar”. The shirt was a deep reflective blue, and had a decorative, black and silver top button, seemingly Asian in design. For whatever reason, this aesthetic appealed to me. Soon, as I accumulated more shirts without collars, I weeded my collared shirts out. Why should I wear collars anyway, I thought, I never liked and didn’t even wear ties anymore; they had always felt constrictive and stifling. For years, when I felt obligated to wear ties, I left my top button undone, and the tie loose and unkempt, a knot of minimum necessary quality. Finally, by finding an alternative, the tyranny of the tie would become a thing of the past.
This seemingly superficial and trivial shift in shirt-styles has led me to reflect, over the years, on the continued prevalence of collared shirts, despite the fact that the tie has become relegated to more formal areas and endeavors within our culture.
The origins of collars are straightforward. As ties began to be worn more prevalently during the Victorian period, paper or cloth collars, originally detached from the shirt and used to house these ties, began to be stitched directly onto shirts: the collared shirt was born. The trend continued until virtually every shirt suitable for work purposes was embellished with a collar; our fashion became tied to the collar, found even on women’s clothing, despite the paucity of an accompanying accessory.
We need not go into the origins of ties, whether intended as a splash guard for uncoordinated or sloppy men (some have suggested that decorative buttons were originally stitched onto the sleeves of formal jackets during the Civil War to prevent soldiers from using their sleeves for wiping their noses), phallic representation of male potency, or a means of separating the head from the body, contributing to and reflecting a culture of talking, disembodied heads. These may have all fed into the prevalence of the tie phenomenon; we are not within an either/or reality, after all.
At this stage in our cultural history, which largely no longer requires previous formalities (hats, jackets, cuff links, shiny leather shoes, and ties) collars have virtually become the appendix of the clothing world: they have largely outlived their purpose, but remain ubiquitous. Many may not realize that there are viable alternatives to collars, due to longstanding prevalence. Others may have never given a thought to the collar… Who thinks about these kinds of things anyway? Still others may be attached to the aesthetic of the collar; aesthetic frequently dwells beyond purpose. However, our aesthetic sensibilities are conditioned by our environment. The world of food is filled with examples. Many foods considered inedible here are exhaulted as delicacies elsewhere: dog, horse, cat, guinea pig, termite, monkey, intestine, testicles, and even jellyfish, to name a few.
To be clear, the purpose of this reflection is not to convince you or others to abandon collars or even ties. Many enjoy either, or even both. Any choices we make in areas of appearance are highly individual and are informed by our sensibilities, aesthetics, and values. If I were advocating for collarless shirts and a banishment of ties, I would be entrenched in promoting my own dogma, a foible I would rather avoid. Strikingly, this cultural attachment to collars, a vestige of the Victorian Age, is really not so different from other dogmas that shape our beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes.
I will clarify my terms: I am defining dogma here as an inflexible, unquestioned, and largely unsubstantiated set of beliefs or practices that are accepted as Reality or Truth. Dogmas can help structure experience, and are implicit within our social interactions. Particularly when we are young, they provide us with guidelines of appropriate social behaviors and give us basic, though sometimes stringent, concepts and experiences of how to be. Due to their ability to create an appearance of order, dogmas are easily passed from one generation to the next. Despite their organizing function, as we evolve dogmas can begin to constrict our development. Like foot binding, they halt, slow, and distort development and ultimately make it difficult for us to get where we need to go. Dogma is not limited to teachings from our culture or our elders. We also develop and impose our own dogmas when we become attached to fixity in how we understand and engage reality. At these times, we become entrapped by the rules and lose contact with the principles from which the rules emerged. Dogma is a static influence, which seeks to maintain order and stave off the inevitable chaos we encounter.
I am not suggesting that dogma is “bad,” as that would be a dogmatic position; actually, many teachings associated with dogmatic systems serve an adaptive purpose for us as individuals and as a collective (thou shall not kill, steal, covet, to name a few). However, dogma tends to be prefaced on a two dimensional, dichotomous model of reality, one of rules and judgments (good/bad; right/wrong, etc). According to contemporary scientific understanding, for what that is worth, we are in a universe with at least three dimensions (as many as 11, according to String Theory). Dogma inherently limits our capacity to relate within our three dimensions, and can obscure the principles, or spirit, on which the rules, structures, and practices were originally based.
To gain some clarity about dogma, it is important to ask questions: What thoughts, beliefs, and practices do I continue that have outlived their purpose? In what ways have I become entrapped by the beliefs I have inherited and developed? What transgenerational patterns, passed from unknown ancient times, am I repeating and recreating without conscious consideration?
Continue to ask the questions, these and many more of your own creation. Questions both provide the point of departure for the quest and inform its course. It is in the process of questing and questioning that we tap more into that which enlivens us and we gain more access to limited glimpses of deeper realities that the fixities of dogmas conspire to obscure.
So, as you put on your next collared shirt or notice the collars encasing the throats and necks of those around you, reflect on what other dogmas you may be wearing, carrying with you, or surrounding yourself with… Even something as silly and insignificant as a shirt style can be a symbol that points to much deeper, hidden, unnoticed and unquestioned dynamics and realities.