Robin Givhan on Fashion: Clothes make condemned man conform to ideal of justice

DRESSED BY THE STATE: John Allen Muhammad in 2003.
DRESSED BY THE STATE: John Allen Muhammad in 2003. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

One of the curious details announced after the execution of convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad had to do with his attire. He was wearing prison-issue denim trousers and shirt, as well as a pair of flip-flops. This piece of information was delivered without emotion by witnesses and officials, as if it were as crucial to the historical record as the fact that he did not have any last words, demonstrate any contrition for his terrible crimes or have a spiritual adviser present.

A state-sponsored execution is filled with ritual, from the agonizing countdown to the grim hour to the prisoner's last meal. That final repast is such a curious display of compassion under the circumstances. Don't let the man die hungry, as if that would be an indication of a truly uncivilized electorate. Or is the last meal a grudging willingness to let the convicted man have the tiniest bit of control over how he will exit this world? He can leave with a belly filled with Twinkies, fried chicken or rib-eye steak. The decision is his, for what it's worth.

But the prisoner is allowed no control over what he will be wearing. He cannot add any final footnote -- no matter how microscopically minor -- about how history will remember him. He will not be able to control the message of the day. He cannot choose to die in a sober suit -- the Western world's favorite symbol of power and couth. He can't wear some logo T-shirt bearing words of protest or a declaration of his innocence. And he can't wear some disconcertingly blase garb that would allow him to mock the proceedings, a final affront to all present. Those seeking justice or vengeance in his death are spared the possibility that the dead man walking will somehow have the final say even after he has taken his last breath.

In virtually all of the accounts describing the last seconds of Muhammad's life, each felt compelled to record every detail, from a stumble -- but not a fall -- to a head tilt. His familiar, yet nondescript clothes seemed to serve as a kind of indication that all power, all control had been stripped away. In the most basic way, clothing helps people situate themselves in the world, it helps them to fit in and form alliances. But Muhammad had had almost all such connections removed. His denim uniform was a blur of blue fabric. He was alone. He was dressed like a man who fades into the background, who goes unnoticed on a street, who has doors close in his face, who is invisible. It's a final little kick in the teeth for a killer who so desperately sought attention in the most gruesome and cruel ways.

Prison uniforms have always existed to rob a convict of his individuality, his power and all but the thinnest shred of dignity. That's part of the punishment. Before the cell doors clang shut, prisoners are stripped of belts and shoelaces, ostensibly to remove the possibility that those strips of leather or nylon could be turned into weapons or instruments of their own self-determined demise. Their clothes hang loose and sloppy. They are so emasculated they can't even hold their pants up.

In the late 1980s, when some young men, struggling with their own sense of self-empowerment, had the audacity to appropriate that prison look, it was discombobulating. They turned powerlessness inside out. Those baggy clothes made it easier for them to swagger. Who wouldn't fear young men with such a capacity?

As a culture, we need to know that the death row inmate died with his dignity intact -- at least a bit of it. Observers felt compelled to note whether Muhammad showed any emotions. Did he cry out in terror or anger? No. Did he weep for himself or for his victims? No. The final assessment confirmed that he died without complication. That the death went off without a hitch. Everyone was spared some kind of horrible, unspeakable failed execution.

As a society, dignity is inextricably linked to appearance. So we needed to know how Muhammad looked. We needed to know that while he was robbed of control, individuality and the ability to torment, he was not fully stripped of his self-respect. He was not forced to perish in some clownish costume. He was not led naked or wrapped in burlap to the execution chamber. Instead he was dressed in something common and plain.

With righteous anger he had been thrown out of the brotherhood of men. He had been judged guilty and sentenced to death. And in those final instants, his composure served as a reminder that the judgment was fair. His calm demeanor, his acquiescence, his unremarkable, mundane appearance confirmed that justice has been served. In a cold and detailed ritual, the state levied its ultimate punishment. No one flinched. There was nothing out of the ordinary.

Muhammad's workmanlike attire spared him his dignity. But even more important, it allowed an outraged citizenry that sent a man to his death to declare its humanity intact.

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