Councilman Justin Farmer, a sophomore, is the epitome unruffled versatility. Our conversation took us from the ‘hood to Yale, and then from Jamaica back to the States. Understanding the complexities in daily dressing for a range of environments with the immutable and centuries-old stigma of the “demonized” black body, Farmer contemplates the meanings of footwear, uncombed hair, buttons, blazers, one unlikely form of headgear, and the impact that they have on how he moves through the world within the context of all of his identities: college student, politician, activist, first generation immigrant, Caribbean, black man.
Carter-David: Good afternoon. We are here in the Bagel Wagon interviewing student activist Justin Farmer about his style choices. I never have one set of questions. I don’t even have one particular question, right? The questions always vary depending on who we’re interviewing. But I guess I would start of by saying how would you describe your style?
Farmer: Either very professional or hobo chic.
Carter-David: So, explain those both to us. Very professional. Hobo chic.
Farmer: Half of the time, I’m doing events. I dress up. I’ve had a couple of internships where I was working on state senatorial and representative, house representative races, and I do political stuff as well. So much so I’m actually running for city council. So being dressed to impress is part of the aesthetic. But then I think about the other times it’s like… When you come to college, you don’t have to worry about clothes and fashion or looking nice. It’s not the same as it was a couple years ago in high school. So it’s like, I don’t need to look fresh for anyone, I’m just trying to get these grades. I don’t have $1,500 for the class, let alone $500 or $1,000 for some Yeezys. It’s not happening. So, most of what I have is Kohl’s cash or just working with what [clothes] I’ve got and just like, “Oh, this still fits me? Okay, I’m going to go with this. Does it vaguely match color scheme? Okay, put it on, that’s what I’m wearing.”
“I don’t have $1,500 for the class, let alone $500 or $1,000 for some Yeezy’s. It’s not happening.”
Carter-David: All right. So, you said on one hand there’s your campus look that’s hobo chic, and on the other hand there is what is your representation of your political aspirations. Explain more about that, because you may have your political aspirations, but there’s also an idea about the way that you want to present yourself.
Farmer: I would say that I have to code switch, and not just with my language, but also with my dress. So, if I’m in certain areas walking with the aesthetics with the headphones, it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing past that. In certain situations, I walk into a classroom and I got headphones on, if I have a Free Huey shirt on or something, people are going to think a completely different thing than if I’m wearing an Old Navy shirt. They might think, “Okay.” And if I’m in a suit and tie rather than just a polo for an event and I have the headphones on, people, even if they don’t ask me outright, they’re going to be like, “Oh, he’s paying attention, he is here, he’s engaged,” rather than, “Are you listening? Do you know what’s going on?” And just being able to do that with my dress in a way where I can push off some of the discussion and not have to be like, “Hey, let me explain my whole life story to you.”
Carter-David: Let’s stop there for a second just to talk about that. Because what part of the aesthetic that drew me to you is the headphones and the buttons, right? Seeing you around campus. Explain. Because I didn’t know until maybe a couple months ago that the headphones were not for the purpose of listening to music. They have another purpose. So, let’s talk about that purpose for a moment, and then we can revisit that idea about what this seems to mean to people when they look at you.
Farmer: The headphones started about four years ago. I have Tourette’s, which is a neurological disorder which causes physical movements and coprolalia—which is like a South Park hallmark—cursing and saying inappropriate things. So knowing that’s a thing, as my Tourette’s got worse, sensory things easily bothered me. Light, touch, sound, living, breathing, but essentially the hearing aspect for me.
Wearing the headphones brought me from anywhere to 20 to 60 plus tics a minute to something like 10, 15 a minute. That could be a flick of the wrist, that could be like I punched myself in the face. One time and had a tooth come out.
Farmer: That could be being on a date and telling your date you’ll slap the crap out of them, to which they’re like, “What?” But when you add in having to go about the day with 50 hand gestures, slightly moving a wrist, or going “Ha,” you know, “hay is for horses,” no big deal. It could be something else, like you decided you were Iron Man and you just punched the ground, except you didn’t have a metal suit.
Farmer: That can be more problematic. So the headphones have allowed me to have more freedom to go out and be able to do more.
And then the aesthetic part of it is about picking nicer headphones. I need to upgrade again. I can put on anything like shotgun, noise canceling headphones, but that’s not going work with the aesthetics, so it’s the Bose. It looks more normal, more natural, and it’s just like, “Oh, that guy really likes music,” rather than, “That guy looks like he drives a John Deere.”
Also, for a while, when I had to switch to other headphones, I picked out colors, because I was like “yeah, I’m going to match it, and even my glasses, I’m like nah, they got to match the headphones.” So yeah. It’s definitely part of the aesthetic thing.
Carter-David: Right. Okay. You were saying before that oftentimes you feel like it can cause a distraction, I think, because people are asking questions. You have to then talk about your life story. You were saying you would like to dress in a way that will show your political purpose in these spaces rather than the headphones having to be the point of the conversation.
Farmer: And I think even though it’s kind of cliché, the Devil Wears Prada aspect of clothes building your personality, allowing you to do whatever you want to do… It’s kind of ridiculous, but it’s also kind of true. The more I’ve become confident in myself and the way I dress and caring or not caring how I’m dressing also reflects in how my aesthetic comes off. So, it used to be that people would ask me all the time, “Why are you wearing headphones?” Where now it’s like I’m doing stuff and I’m moving about and I’m having conversations and they want to ask me about the headphones, but they’re paying more attention to what I’m doing. But most of the time people don’t out rightly need to ask anymore.
Which was funny because I met with Mayor Harp and I didn’t mention it, and we were like 45 minutes into the conversation I realized I’ve never said anything about [the headphones]. I’m meeting with the staffers, and her, and other people, and no one’s asked me and we’re still going along with the meeting. Granted, I was dressed, and I had my tie, I had the sweater vest, I had a jacket, I had the Clarks shoes, because you have to highlight the country [Jamaica], because—
Carter-David: Yes, all right—
Farmer: Because you can’t just wear any shoes, you got to wear Clarks. But yeah. Forty-five minutes in and I realized I’d never said anything about the headphones, just what we were talking about. I just realized the intern’s been staring at me for a half an hour, and I’m like, “Why is she looking me in the eye?” And I’m like “Oh, okay, the headphones.”
Carter-David: Because you forget.
It’s kind of like with anything, whether it’s a chosen piece of adornment, or something that is utilitarian. The glasses and headphones are a necessity for you to get through. You may have tattoos. I have tattoos. Sometimes you forget. When we were interviewing President Joe, he was talking about how his partner has all these tattoos and piercings and there is this idea that when someone walks in the room, what’s the first thing they notice, and what kinds of stories they create about you without you even knowing.
Carter-David: And so most things are things you can’t help. If you need glasses, you need glasses. If you need headphones, you need them. I don’t need a tattoo, but whether I want it or not it’s there because I got it, right? And so now it’s part of me. And the same thing could be said about other kind of choices. People wear makeup because it’s supposed to make them feel better about themselves or they’re highlighting something, and they don’t always want to talk about it. Sometimes they just want it to be a part of themselves. They don’t want to have to go into a story. I thought that was an interesting point.
Let’s sidetrack from the political activist stuff for a second. The Caribbean piece. My husband’s Trinidadian, and even though I grew up around Caribbean people, the Spanish speaking Caribbean and from the English-speaking Caribbean, Trinidad and Jamaica mainly, I didn’t know about Clarks until I was a little older. And now I hear it in all the songs, right? So talk a little bit about that, the national representation. So you’re talking about the hobo chic, but then we also have this part of you that has these political aspirations, and it plays out in dress. What role could you say culture plays in your choice of shoe?
Farmer: With my family coming from Jamaica, a proper dress shoe, when we were going to get dress shoes, is a nice pair of Clarks. It doesn’t mean necessarily same thing here, but back home it means it means a sense of success, and a sense of pride.
Carter-David: And it still does in Caribbean American communities. East Flatbush, for sure. I’m sure maybe in Hartford too, you know.
Farmer: Exactly. England too. Those who might be called “Yankees” might not understand.
Carter-David: Right. It’s definitely an intra-cultural thing that you might not understand unless you’re around Caribbean people.
“That’s definitely a Caribbean cultural thing. You have different types of clothes. You have your sleeping clothes… You have your work clothes. Some meet-up clothes that are kind of worn out and you wear them for work. You have your night clothes in general. You have clothes that you change into after you come home.”
Farmer: So that’s really important. But the other thing is, being Americanized, and also being West Indian, even colors [matter]. West Indians love to wear bright, elaborate, boastful, out-there colors. I was like “nope.” In some ways, I really am American. I need some very conservative gray, blue, black. Just very neutral colors, not to necessarily highlight me. But in terms of dress clothes, I think my mother’s idea of dress clothes was like going to the carnival every week for church, and it’s like no, it’s not happening anymore. And then switch that to “well yeah, you need to have a belt. Oh, cardigans, okay. Sweater vests, all right.” Ties, bow ties. And from that, I have more dress clothes, and different style dress clothes, then I have casual clothes.
And that’s definitely a Caribbean cultural thing. You have different types of clothes. You have your sleeping clothes, clothes that you sleep in, because you can’t sleep in any clothes. You have your work clothes. Some meet-up clothes that are kind of worn out and you wear them for work. You have your night clothes in general. You have clothes that you change into after you come home. And just those different aspects of categorizing what clothing to wear where, it’s not really a thing we do in the States. It’s still something culturally that I’m always cognizant of. I’m like that’s a nice cardigan. I’m not going to wear it here because it’s dress clothes, but I also want to wear it to when I’m going to go party, so I’m not going to wear it now, even though it’s cold. So, I’m going to put on this hoodie that’s outside, working, volunteering clothes, rather than dress-up type of clothing.
Carter-David: I think that it is more of a Caribbean thing. My husband explained that to me. He would get in trouble for wearing his school clothes after school. And I think I got a little bit of that growing up. I’m African American, but I feel like they’ve relaxed a lot of this, the dress code, even in church in the US. Some of this I think is generational too. When I was growing up, you had to wear tights and a slip and a skirt to church. I’m only 38, and in the course of my lifetime that has totally changed. And now people go to church looking like anything, which is surprising.
Farmer: In terms of some places that I go, part of that also has helped me when it comes to dressing up. I feel sometimes I’m way more dressed up or way more put together, even though I don’t have a full suit. I have a couple of suit jackets. I just have so many things that I can put together different looks as if I was a young professional.
Carter-David: That’s a common theme throughout the stories of people we’ve interviewed. In my own life I know the meaning of a blazer, and what it means to wear a jacket and to be able to throw that on even though maybe what you’re wearing might be relatively casual. You could on – ok we’ve got on shorts, but let’s say you had pants on – throw a blazer on it, and it still kind of pulls things together in a way.
Jean Simon: I’ve seen people with shorts and a jacket.
Carter-David: Oh yeah. You can do that too!
Farmer: Some people can do that. I’m no judge. I’m just going to say some people can pull it off, but most people can’t.
Carter-David: I know from some article that I must have read which they’d done some research, but also, I know this anecdotally. Jamaica has the most amount of churches per square mile than any other place in the world. Would you – I don’t know if you’re religious, you said you go to church with your mom – could you talk a little bit about church style and how this might play into your decisions to wear the church/professional clothes and that sort of thing. The role that religion plays in the family.
Farmer: Most of my family isn’t religiously observing, and I happen to be one of the people who is the most devout, outside of my mother, out of five other siblings. I think part of the thing was that church clothes…. Another thing, a cultural aspect, was that clothes were always bought for me to eventually grow into.
So, the fact that a lot of clothes were meant for me to grow into, a large amount of my clothes has been stockpiled for church stuff, which has allowed me to just at the right time have clothes to wear. I was looking through old pictures like “oh, this dress shirt that I wear is four years old,” but you wouldn’t be able to tell that. In the picture, you can see that it’s big and I’m tucking it in.
Carter-David: That’s what we moms do to save money.
Farmer: But now I’m like “it fits on me great.” You would think that I got it tailored. In terms of that, I think the ties that I get, especially some of the religious ties that I wear and being cognizant of when to wear them and where to wear them, and just…
“I am always cognizant to dress to make sure that my body isn’t demonized.”
Carter-David: Now, religious ties? Please explain that.
Farmer: Nativity scenes or the wise men or just being conscientious of when to wear them, or there are times when I have events that are religious and aren’t religious. And thinking of them, or going to funerals or different things, I think clothing definitely plays a role in that. I had a friend who passed. One of the aesthetics that he did was he had people wear ear buds as if they were secret service, and that was one of the one time, like okay, everyone wearing headphones and ear buds dressed up in church clothes was normal.
Carter-David: Okay. Let’s talk now about the buttons.
Carter-David: So that was one of the things that I wanted to talk with you about. That’s the second thing outside the headphones. Buttons are known to … We interviewed a professor… Do you know Jonathan Wharton?
Farmer: Yes. Preppy prop.
Carter-David: Preppy prof. And we kind of play off that. Let’s be clear, we all, anybody who’s interested in fashion at all, we play it up a little. “I’m preppy professional so I’m going to be ‘extra.’ I’m a fashion historian, I got my head shaved.” And people do a little “extra” with the buttons you know—the buttons represent something political. Let’s talk about the buttons. What are the wide range of buttons? What are the purposes of those buttons? So, we have something in fashion theory called clothing signs and clothing symbols, right?
Clothing signs are those official things that represent certain kinds of rights and responsibilities. So during commencement, I wear my academic regalia. That’s a clothing sign, because you have to have a doctorate to wear that. Police officers wear clothing signs, because you’re not supposed to wear a police uniform if you are not a police officer, right? Being a nun, for example. They wear their habits. That’s a clothing sign. Certain kind of rights and responsibilities that are bestowed upon people who are wearing certain clothing, right?
Carter-David: Then there are clothing symbols, which are things that people can read in certain ways to mean different things, right? Buttons are clothing symbols, but they’re very direct, because they don’t leave much to the imagination in terms of what someone’s political stance is, although sometimes, looking at these clothing symbols, you have to have an insider knowledge of something that might be a little tricky or a little witty, right? And I really don’t know what this is, so explain [this button] to me. “Murphy for President 2020.”
Farmer: Someone decided … About two, three weeks ago, there was an event where Cory Booker came, and there are rumors that he’s going to run for president. Murphy came out to endorse him, but someone was trolling Murphy, and they printed out a ton of pins that said Murphy for President 2020.
Farmer: Unless you knew that, this pin wouldn’t make sense to you. But it’s a funny political pin that this person did as a joke; they printed out maybe 300 of them, and they gave them out to people throughout the night. And people started wearing them, to which Murphy was confused. He’s like, “No no no no, this is …” And even Cory Booker actually took one. So Cory Booker has a Murphy for President pin.
So yeah, that’s one of those insider ones that you need to be in the know to really get.
Carter-David: Right. A clothing symbol.
So, let’s maybe choose two or three more buttons to discuss. Maybe one of those can be your connection to Southern as a student here. What does that mean for you? Let’s talk about that really quickly. You’re an activist on campus. What does it mean aesthetically to wear these buttons at an institution of higher learning? This is a working class institution, it’s a regional stay institution, it’s why I love working here. I’m a first generation college student. My mother did graduate from college but I was already a teenager by the time she graduated. So I can appreciate what it’s like to be at a place like this and to have the diversity that we have here, not just ethnic diversity, but also economic diversity. So I’m imagining that any institution that you would be attending, you would be this kind of activist. But I wonder what role does Southern play as an institution in your activism and your support of Southern through the buttons? So let’s start with the Southern.
Your button that you’re wearing right now says “Social Justice #owlsforjustice.”
Farmer: We recently became the social justice university, which really fits me doing social justice stuff all the time. So, I am proud to be an Owl, and highlight the fact that something that’s really important to me is a namesake for our school; social justice is important and part of the academic learning process.
So yeah. I love that aspect, and being able to step in different spaces, oftentimes being in the shadow of other universities like Yale, and to show up at events and people are like, “Wow, that was really amazing what you said about this,” or “Wow, this group is really amazing. Where are you all from?”
Carter-David: I love that. Yep.
Farmer: And to be able to point to the pin and say, “Hey, this is Southern. This is the other blue and white university that’s really doing things in the community.”
Carter-David: I love that too. Part of the reason why we’re doing this, too, is about student morale. Trying to boost people up, right? To encourage people to feel excited about seeing their friends, and professors, and president, classmates or whatever talking about fashion in this way.
All right, so let’s talk about some of the others. We talked about the Southern button and the Murphy button. Let’s talk about a couple of the other buttons here.
Farmer: “#refugeesarewelcomehere,” so working with IRIS, and working with …
Carter-David: What’s IRIS?
Farmer: IRIS does… I forget the acronym, but they work with immigrants coming mostly from the Middle East… being able to help those refugees find a new life inside of the US, and being able to connect them with the community. Also working with the Muslim Student Association. That is a huge part, especially since we have a large Muslim community in Connecticut… to be able to learn more about them, and share culture, and different aspects.
“Support the Strike, Unite Here, Local 26.” I went up to Boston. Harvard was going to do a study on people who spoke English as a second language who were poor, and people of color. They were getting a $10 million grant from the government. At the same time they were stripping away the rights of the food service workers at Harvard, who happened to be English speaking second language [and] poor. So the irony of that was that this is something that shouldn’t be happening at the hands of one of the largest, greatest universities; they were oppressing poor people.
So, a couple of us students went up there and went up there to Boston, and of course to our credit, four days later, Harvard made the right decision. Obviously that was because us Owls took flight to the issues and not because of all the other stuff that was going on.
Jean Simon: I like that. “Owls took flight.”
Carter-David: “Owls took flight.” And that button says “Support the Strike, Unite Here, Local 26.” I’m want to remember to add these points in.
Farmer: These are the same. So the “Congress of CT Community Colleges,” as well as the “Save Our Education” pin, this year has been really important in terms of working to keep tuition down and lobbying a lot up in Hartford to try to keep our tuition down, which [the BOR] ended up raising. But that was really important because there were at least five or six trips with students where we went up there, talked to our legislators about why higher education is important. That aspect has pushed me more into why I’m getting into politics.
“Sean Ronan, Democrat, 117.” My internship was working with four candidates, one of which was Sean Ronan. He was a great guy. He ended up losing by a few points. But one of the things that really touched me was that he talked about PTSD. One of the things he wanted to introduce was legislation to help vets, as well as people who are EMTs or services, if they have post-traumatic stress disorder. And that was something really cool to see, to push that from a legislative side and also see how directly making policy can change things. So that was really cool.
“Recycling at Southern.” I aspire to become a marine biologist, so conservation, being green, being cognizant of what we’re doing and how that affects our environment, that’s just me. “Environment Connecticut,” again, environmental stuff, I care about the environment. “It’s On Us.” Southern’s campaign to attack, head on, sexual assault and harassment. Working with the Women’s Studies Program, and working with people on being cognizant of the issues around women and also around rape culture and how we defeat that not only on campus but in general.
Farmer: “#stigmafighter.” Sometimes when I don’t have my Tourette’s pin with me, but sometimes when I’m at events and I’m twitching or something like, I can put on something like this and not say anything, and it will allow someone to get a cue that [makes them think] “Oh, something is different. Okay, I get it. I support you,” rather than making a big deal of it. If you’re in a room full of 20, 30 people, and you’re in the middle directing people, or greeting people or something like that, you don’t have time to go through all the aspects of what’s going on. You can just point to that people get it.
Farmer: An owl wearing a hat. That’s just a pin we got from Southern that I just enjoy.
Carter-David: Southern pride.
Farmer: Yeah. “Not All Who Wander are Lost,” “JRR Tolkien.” He wrote Lord of the Rings. “Not All Who Wander are Lost.” I oftentimes am wandering, doing stuff. And I like to think that I’m not lost and know what I’m doing.
“Festival of Arts and Ideas.” I’ve helped them out with stuff. I take photography. Volunteered at the animal shelter down the street.
Just like another union pin, another, this was a jobs campaign, getting 1,000 jobs for the community. This was my name tag from Boy Scouts, because I did Boy Scouts. And “Laugh More,” like, have fun with it.
Farmer: So yeah, those are some of my main pins.
Carter-David: Now a couple more questions. Just two more I think. The first would be let’s talk about what the value is. You actually mentioned some of this very specifically. You just talked about stigma fighter, “#stigmafighter.” And I’m wondering what the value is in wearing these pins, and how you think these read on your body, right? You’re Jamaican American, of African descent. You’re tall, you’re thin, you have your glasses, your headphones on. What does it mean for you to find yourself at any place in the world wearing these pins? What is the purpose of projecting your political worldview?
And I think we think about this all the time with stigma – with clothing symbols. Sometimes I have graphic tees. I have one that says “Less is More,” it’s a joke on me being short. And I used to be skinny, not so much anymore. Or, like, “High Heels, High Hopes,” when I’m wearing my heels. Little things like that. They’re not as political. But what do you think it means to wear these on your body and going about the world silently before people even get to know you?
Farmer: I think that showing up to certain events for solidarity, being able to show that I’m in support [is important]. Sometimes, if I’m dressed up to the “T,” and I’m going to an event, like the Climate March and Science March, talking about environmental issues, and I came from a meeting and I’m dressed up in a suit, some people would just think, “This guy’s not with the program.” But if I have my green pin on, people are like, “Oh, he’s supporting, he just had something else to do.” So sometimes I might be in those spaces where I might not look the part, but I can put on a pin and show them that I’m part of it.
Carter-David: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Farmer: But also, sometimes [it’s about] showing intersectionality. I go to a rally talking about Black Lives Matter, but I might wear a “Refugees Are Welcome Here” button to bring about the discussion that the attack on black and brown varieties is not mutually exclusive to actual identity, but also perception. Or like, “Save Our Education.” I might go up to Hartford talking about why wealth redistribution is a thing and why I shouldn’t lose my education, or I might go up there to talk about preserving and protecting our water rights. But at the same time, I also want legislators and other people to know my education is important, and you need to make sure that tax dollars go my way so I can get an education.
Carter-David: So, you think it’s important for people to be able to look at you in any space and realize Black Lives Matter to you as a black person, but maybe you’re somewhere else and they need to see your body and realize that someone who looks like you, whatever that might mean to them, has a lot of different interests. And that might be the case for other people in this space as well. So, you’re making the point that you don’t have to feel any kind of inner conflict or turmoil about representing different causes, and you can see that just by looking at—
Carter-David: I’m sorry I’m talking for you, but yeah.
Farmer: No, no, no. When you’re talking about the sexual violence one, I think a lot of people didn’t know it was Sexual Violence Awareness Month a couple months ago, and wearing this [button] around, people are like, “Oh, why are you wearing that?” I’m like, “Oh, that’s what month it is.” It’s the month to be cognizant of that, and to learn, and to go to your learning edges and find out what you don’t know about these issues. Or I might wear my strike pin going to another solidarity movement for someone else who’s working on worker rights and show hey, I’m about working issues, whether it’s here or somewhere else.
Carter-David: Right. Another quick question I just thought of. We don’t have to spend too much time on it, and I did just ask President Joe about—
Farmer: Facial hair?
Carter-David: Yes! Facial hair. I didn’t realize this, because I didn’t pay attention to the way President Joe looks until very recently, but he has a beard. And there’s been a popular comeback with the beard, but there was a time when a clean shaven face was supposed to mean something respectable. So can you talk a little bit about—
Farmer: I don’t have much facial hair. But I like the bearded look. I’m, low key, very happy that President Joe brought back the beard. But also just hair for me, especially having more coarse hair, I don’t get my hair cut as often, because loud noises and everything. So hair for me… if I’m going somewhere and I really need to look presentable, I’m going to put the pick through it and I’m going to comb it out, make sure it looks nice. There’s other days where it’s just like yeah, you can tell that I slept on the left side of my head today.
Jean Simon: I feel yeah.
Jean Simon: This is not a fashion statement.
Farmer: But definitely wintertime here… I like hair. I like my facial hair. I think it makes me look more masculine, especially being young. Sometimes when I’m clean-shaven people are like—
Jean Simon: Too young.
Carter-David: They think you’re too young to be in that space.
Jean Simon: I totally feel you.
Farmer: You’re too young. But—
Carter-David: I never thought about that. Okay. I’m learning something about what it might feel like to be someone who grows a beard. Okay.
Farmer: But when I have looked scraggly, they’re like, “Man, shave, do something,” but at least they’re like, “Oh, you’re old enough to be here.”
Carter-David: To have a beer, whatever you’re there doing. Okay.
Carter-David: In terms of your own hair presentation, do you feel that the natural hair movement amongst black women has influenced men to feel more comfortable with style choices themselves? I’m curious about it.
Farmer: I think it’s in some ways connected, but also different. I think with basketball and football culture with black men wearing their hair more wild, it’s been somewhat accepted, but that’s more of a day to day thing whereas in a business setting, I can’t wear my hair the same way. I think with the women’s movement it’s been like hey, my natural hair is acceptable in a business setting! As a man outside of sports or outside of day life, with certain jobs you can’t wear your hair natural as men, or if you can, you’re combing or doing something. In my case, I have an excuse, which would allow me to circumvent that, but most cases the way I keep my hair—
Carter-David: The excuse being…?
Farmer: The sensitivity with noise and how that affects me. Other people, they don’t get that excuse.
Farmer: Also, with the hair movement it’s that it’s cultural. It’s your work environment. It’s also social too. The last issue was the decision with the dreadlocks. I don’t understand how the Supreme Court had to have the rule on dreadlocks. Out of all the other stuff they could possibly rule on, all the other important stuff that needs to be discussed, they found time to rule that natural hair in the form of dreadlocks is not appropriate for a business place. A business can choose to say that you wearing it is not in accord with being professional. I think that discussion with men’s hair hasn’t come as far. I don’t know if there’s going to be a men’s movement on natural hair because there’s so many different things that connect to it, even the idea of changing the barbershop culture, which is a social hub to talk about different issues. I don’t see that coming about as soon as the women’s hair movement in that revolutionary way.
Carter-David: One thing Steve [Jean Simon] and I talked about is that perhaps it hasn’t come as far for men because men are less less likely to be judged based on their appearance than women are. There’s this whole idea in dress theory that women are dressed by the beauty principle, and that men are judged more likely by the hierarchy principle meaning that a man’s power is more important than how he looks where a woman’s looks are more important than her power. We can all talk about how that’s problematic, but I think there may be some truth in that. I wonder if there’s not as much of a discourse around black men’s hair culture and that kind of thing because the way you look doesn’t matter as much as they way I look. There’s also the way we’re socialized that women have a wider range—black, white, whatever—of possible hairstyling options that are acceptable than men do, so maybe men are limited in that way, and that’s one thing that I think might… We talk about all the privilege that men have and men do enjoy male privilege, but I wonder if this is one way in which men don’t enjoy that same kind of privilege without being judged for it.
Farmer: How many men lawyers can you think of that have braids, or dreads, or such? It’s very few whereas I can think of a lot of professional women who have braids, and it’s not a thing. I don’t know if there’s any benefit to natural hair for men especially men of color aside to just feeling liberated. I don’t think it empowers us in that same type of way.
Carter-David: So, we talked about growing facial hair. We’ve talked about the hair on your head and the natural hair movement. We’ve talked about the headphones, you dressing for success in terms of going into the political realm, your activist stuff. We talked about the cultural stuff, tying in a Jamaican propensity, perhaps, to dress; it may be more Caribbean in general. Church. Can you talk about—and I’ve used this before with one of my interviewees, I think it was Daisha—cultural bricolage. It’s a term that term that’s related to points of contact for people in the Atlantic world, back in the moment when slavery was happening and there was all this trade happening in the Atlantic world. But it was also used to talk about the ways in which we sort of mesh language, cultural, dress, etc together.
I’m not at all a Rasta, clearly, because my head is shaven. Neither is my son, despite the fact he might look like that. But obviously having locks in your hair might mean something religious or cultural. My hair’s not straight and I don’t have a wig on. So obviously I’m someone who’s projecting some kind of pride in my hair texture in a world that tells me it’s ugly, right? But then I also have tattoos, right? So I’m just curious about what it means on your body to bring all these points together. Have you thought about what it means?
Carter-David: Because we like to talk about, what’s the word? Not co-opting. Appropriating! Commodifying or appropriating culture.
People are appropriating hip hop culture. And there is validity in that concern. But what does it mean to bring all that you are together on your body? Now I’m looking at your rubber bracelets that have the same kind of significance that maybe the buttons have in some way.
Farmer: Yeah. For me, I think a lot of the time most of what I’m dressing is for a purpose, but mainly part of that is making sure not to demonize my body. I used to joke, if Bill O’Reilly was to narrate if I got shot, “what were you wearing, how were you dressed? What allowed people to think what they thought about you?” So I always am cognizant to dress to make sure that my body isn’t demonized in a way… This used to be a religious bracelet.
Carter-David: The white rubber one?
Farmer: Yes. This black one was for a student had cancer, which I replaced with another black band. This used to say Black Lives Matter. This one is for Tourette’s awareness. This orange band is from when the Yale graduate students were fighting.
These are different things that I constantly represent. Also, with me in general, anytime I’m going through certain parts of my area where I live I have to mean-mug and look a certain way to get from point A to point B.
Carter-David: Right. So you look like you belong there.
Farmer: And making sure that my outfit can fit both stereotypes, where I can be in both spaces.
Carter-David: So, talk more about that. Let’s end this interview with your perceptions on black men and police violence and dress. I teach this fashion history course, and we do iconic fashions from the 1960s forward. The last time that I taught the course we did the hoodie as our final iconic fashion. How do hoodies read on different bodies?
Farmer: I think, depending on what spaces you’re in, especially being in academia and also more political spaces, you have to dress a certain type of way, otherwise you might be characterized in a certain way. And I think for me also it becomes a safety issue. There’s been times where I’ve been stopped by police where I’m in one space, but I didn’t think [when I was getting dress], “Oh yeah, I’m going to Yale later on, and I might be around this area,” and it just happens to be I wore the one hoodie that I have.
So, I think of clothes as a defense has been a thing. I would end with the idea that people should be able to dress the way that makes them feel most confident and more comfortable to do what they need to do. And I can’t wait for the day when I can dress to impress rather than dress to the test, or what have you.