As a fractious teen, I pushed the limits of my high school’s dress code and even got sent home a few times. My mom faulted the school administration for its stupidity, knowing that if I was sent home I would not be going back to class that day. At the same time, I relished wearing my show clothes to events and dressage shows (although struggled with keeping my hair up in my helmet). I loved color-coordinating my cross-country tack and attire. I appreciated how the stark pop of black and white in dressage looked on my palomino. I could easily adhere to a dress code if it suited me to do so. However, not all athletes are so compliant about what they wear in competition and on the street.
This is why we have rules, people, and I LOVE RULES. Whether I agree with them and follow them to a fault or whether I think they are dumb and enjoy breaking them, rules pique my interest, entertain me, and stimulate my capacity for argument.
I am about to argue.
In competition, a certain uniformity of attire is beneficial to the participants and the officiants. Everyone on the same team wears the same thing so it is obvious to players or competitors, who the
mortal enemy opponent is. Officials know who is who. I would like to use the NFL’s dress code here as an example, for in competition (and outside of it, probably in a later post). I would like to also briefly look at the Global Champions League and some recent updates to the look of that strain of equestrian competition that I really, really like.
You know what looks good on HDTV? COLOR. CONTRAST. Bright, graphic, kinetic energy running around and making plays and doing cool things that only a tiny percentage of the population is capable of. The NFL provides this in excess, and for that I thank the NFL profusely. Every week in the fall and winter, two teams dressed impeccably in brightly colored uniforms square up and face off against each other and battle over a weirdly-shaped ball that is at times quite obviously confounding to handle, and battle over field position of that ball. Yes, it’s violence and a metaphor for conventional warfare and blah blah blah … I am not a pacifist or much of a moralist and if you are, you probably won’t appreciate my take on the entertainment factors of professional football. Moving forward … You know WHY it looks so good, all of that color and contrast and feats of athleticism and physical clashes? RULES.
Some people argue that the NFL dress code is ticky-tacky to the extreme and results in ridiculous fines and penalties. Well, to that I say categorically, so what? The players are paid nice salaries even as rookies and even before football is a sport for the sake of sport, football at the professional level is entertainment. In America. That means football makes a lot of people who don’t even play the game a lot of money. Football had better show up to the party dressed like a billion bucks. And as to whether the dress code comes off as arbitrary? Uh, duh. Of course it’s arbitrary, to a certain extent. (I am not addressing equipment, just attire.) It’s uniforms for professional football players, who are athletically exceptional and while disciplined enough (usually) to play within the confines of a system of rules that in some ways promotes violence but in other ways attempts to mitigate the injurious nature of the sport, I personally would prefer they did not show up to play in Winnie-the-Pooh footie pajamas, with their protective pads strapped to the outside. Seriously, if the dress code says wear stripes, wear stripes. The point is, everyone looks THE SAME. Football has a level of entertainment to uphold here, because Americans are demanding (and reinforcing) it by the mere fact of just tuning in to a game.
Things that enhance that level of entertainment? Dynamic plays drawn up to take advantage of loopholes in the rules. Dynamic plays that are straightforward and showcase the talent of players at the apex of their careers. Humble athletes. Quiet leaders. Loud leaders. Vocal teammates who stir up emotions and controversy and competitiveness. Hall of fame coaches that don’t say much, and maybe cheat, and always win when it counts. (But why you gotta be always cutting the sleeves of your sweatshirts, Belichick?) Grit, greed, good sportsmanship, bad attitudes, injuries, thousand-yard stares, no-huddle offenses, flukey outcomes, good officiating, bad officiating, and touchdowns in all of their glorious forms. And all done in the confines of rules that apply to everyone, although they are not always applied to everyone. Football epitomizes not only the American sense of wanting to win, but also the American sense of fairness. A blown call can get the nation talking for WEEKS.
How does the uniformity of uniforms contribute to this circus of bloodsport that entertains so many Americans? You don’t really notice them much after watching for a few minutes, is how. Because they all look the same. Every week, a team is going to show up in the team’s colors, every player looking the same, every team unified vibrantly so that every fan can keep track of what’s happening on the field. This works SO WELL that we buy these uniforms for ourselves and wear them to show solidarity, define our personal fandom, and don’t think twice about the fact that everyone’s socks are the same BECAUSE everyone’s socks are the same. You aren’t distracted by socks so you can just enjoy the sport. Look at any 60″ HDTV on any given Sunday in the fall tuned to NFL RedZone and it is a masterwork of abstract and/or performance art. The colors pop and fly around like psychedelic June bugs. Football LOOKS really damn good.
For that, I savor the bureaucratic obsessiveness of the NFL dress code. The NFL also has an off-field dress code that has to do with keeping up appearances and a certain level of professionalism and I love that, too, but let’s save that for another post (akin to what you wear to school in as opposed to what you show in for equestrians).
On to our sport (if you don’t ride horses and are reading this blog I am not really talking to you but thanks for reading) … Here’s the deal. A lot of what we show in comes from foxhunting, a sport of European landed gentry and politically effete but personally grounded nobility, a sport in a climate far more mild than the variable extremes of North American weather. Sure, everyone hunted in wool hunt coats because it was 58F and maybe a little drizzly. But the various disciplines that have evolved from hunting are asking some harder questions than a 3′ hedge or a 4′ gate and a brisk gallop before taking picnic lunch brought out by servants. AND we’ve got not one but two athletes to consider outfitting here. But guess what? I like the refined and tailored look of a hunt coat, even if I prefer the moisture-wicking, stretchy, synthetic materials of other sports uniforms because they’re more practical to move around in. Oh, wait. I CAN HAVE BOTH. I can get a stretchy, breathable, affordable, mesh hunt coat that still looks like I’m nobility when I walk my horse into the ring. Multiple options are available, including FITS and Alessandro Albanese. Because it’s the 21st century and our sport IS keeping up with the times, even if you think it’s not.
Most importantly, a certain uniformity of dress and adherence to that standard shows something beyond just a willingness to follow rules. It shows respect for the sport, the judges, for the other competitors, and especially the horse. It’s a recognition of the need best to show off the most important factor–the horse. It’s a HORSE show after all, right? Why let what we wear show disrespect of or distract from the animal we are trying to showcase? Everyone: wear the same thing so that the horses take the stage of competition and the judge isn’t appalled at your neon green tee-shirt and pink breeches and can’t focus on your lovely little bay mare (or whatever). There are costume classes–save it for that. Show your horse off to your best–and that includes dressing humbly, impeccably, and simply. Navy hunt coat, tan breeches in the hunter ring. Neutral breeches and a shirt with a collar and sleeves in the jumper ring, unless the standard of dress is Proper or Formal, then wear what that calls for. White breeches and black four-button coat for dressage … this isn’t difficult. Show respect and wear what the rules state, because if you take care of that, it is one less distraction from concentrating on showing off your mount to the best of your ability. And no one will have an advantage because of their appearance–that part of the playing field is well-leveled.
But remember when I said something about the Global Champions League earlier? Hey, they don’t always wear hunt coats, though, right? Right! But they all wear the SAME THING. They ride in teams. The Global Champions League is trying to make the sport more accessible to spectators, and I think the League takes a few good steps in the right direction. It looks good. The teams sport team polos and the horses sport matching bonnets and saddle pads. But everyone is still clean, neat, respectably dressed and the horses are still the stars. You don’t think much about the attire because there is nothing about it to think about–you can focus on watching the athletic feats, handy turns, and graceful jumps of the horses. You can enjoy everything that is good about equestrian sport: the horses’ athleticism and training, the technical questions on fast tracks over large obstacles, the nail-biting jump-offs, the tricky distances, the cheap rails, the cheers after a fall when a rider and horse are both okay, the victory gallops and egotistical mounts rearing during the awards ceremonies … not once should attire take away from any of that. Especially in jumpers, it’s not a beauty contest. Let the horse take front and center.
So yeah, I miss football right now. But there is a point to this post. Show attire is not about some random supercilious person arbitrarily trying to stuff you into a wool Melton mold. Show attire shows respect for yourself, your competition, the judges, but most importantly show attire takes a backseat to the horse, the most important thing we want to show. Presentation is not superficial. Presentation represents what you hold most dear: dress the part, and let your horse outshine you.