Within the InfoSec community, we have numerous diverse positions. Some that require formal business attire on a daily basis. Several that only necessitate this form of dress when we are client facing. Still yet, with others it is never relevant what we wear outside of the hiring process. Our outward appearance for professions are based upon the established dress code, be it official or simply a social expectation dictated by the definition of the situation. When we move towards styles chosen for conference attendance, we get to see the preferred manner of dress. We see largely three camps, when it comes to these gatherings; the Casuals, the Suits and the Adaptive. In public settings, the deviant manifestation is that which clashes with the set norm. However, during conferences we have two sets of social norms, each with interesting clashes. I should note here, that in this context, I am only considering the manageable fashion; style of dress, hair, makeup, accessories. This does not consider the range of appearance that an individual has no control of; skin color, deformities, gender, attractiveness and so on.
Our superficial style communicates for us long before we ever articulate statements in a conversation. It has long been used as an external technique of establishing in-group members; even when they are a stranger to us. This likewise, influences the definition of the situation regarding how others carry themselves and interact with us. When the other person does not verbalize their acceptance, we must gauge what they perceive. When we enter a new situation with others this is the only choice the individual has.
I feel the need to define the Casuals, as many within this camp can be extravagant in their appearance as well. This includes everything from the jeans and tee-shirts types to those donning vibrant hair, costumes and so on. The “comfort is key” crowd all the way to the “let your freak-flag fly” crowd and those in between. Absent the typical hacker personification of the black hoodie, these are the types often imagined when outsiders hear the word “hacker.”
Due to the diverse nature of this category, those within it are often adept in dealing with the negative interactions in traditional societal settings. The jeans and tee-shirts types tend to blend more in conventional society, as this is considered norm for the “working class.” The more extravagant personas often have a more challenging time in customary social settings as they are deviating from the set norm. Those in this subcategory are often met with reactions ranging from glares to mocking to physical violence, based solely on their appearance. The more one deviates from the cultural norm of fashion, the harsher the reactions become. All within this category will be determined to be middle class or below by out-group members regardless of what their income may be. The jeans and tee-shirts are often regarded as more approachable while the more extravagant types are more likely to be avoided by society’s “normal.”
During conferences, the Casuals regardless of where on the spectrum they lay, are considered approachable and are inclined to feel more accepted in the setting. Interestingly, in many cases the Suits will view this group as more of the hobbyists than professionals. Others that are not conference attendees yet, share the space through coincidence will react as they would in any other setting, though are often shocked by the sheer number of this type.
The Suits require less definition than the previous. It would be business or formal attire. In traditional public settings, this group would be viewed as middle-upper to upper class citizens and treated as such. In day to day lives they are afforded a higher level of respect than others. Often, their outward appearance dictates an interpretation of them being an “important” person and presumed to be constantly “busy.” These are more likely to be approached less in a common setting as others will interpret themselves as lesser than the Suits. An exception is that this group is more likely to be approached by homeless as they will be viewed as having the means to give freely.
A curious shift is seen during conference attendance as The Suits are often viewed rather harshly. They can frequently be seen as “sell-outs,” viewed as less approachable and are often targets during “spot the Fed.” However, this group blends more easily with the coincidental others in the conference areas. More than likely not being associated with the conference itself. The external style of this group does not make them any less of a hacker than the next, but it is often interpreted as such. The Suits are also regarded as “intimidating” by the Casuals, even when they do not openly admit it.
As one example, I look back to my first Defcon. I had brought a fabulous dress and had intended on going full glam. However, I was advised against doing this as it would make the others feel uncomfortable. That Defcon, I heeded the advice and remained in my casual attire for the duration. Though, that eventually changed and I opt for semi-glam at the more recent events, there were some noticeable reactions but nothing too unreasonable. I do however, see the common social avoidance and hear the whispers about being a groupie (regardless of the glammed person’s actual technical abilities) or other equally pejorative comments. This cattiness derived from our own insecurities is something that we need to work on.
While anyone can change their outward appearance by simply changing their clothes, hair, and accessories; many fail to be comfortable with that switch. This discomfort becomes painfully obvious to others. Of course, this is not to say that the individual does not make minor adjustments to become more accepted, they just cannot “sell” the persona that they are attempting to externally exhibit. Those successful in their switch go unnoticed between the two groups, these chameleons are the Adaptive. This is well practiced among the social engineers within InfoSec and known as part of their pretext. Given, this is simply one element of “playing the part.” This is a concept that the Adaptive understand, be it naturally or through conditioning. This group easily transitions between the two, experiencing aspects of the positives and negatives associated with both the Casuals and the Suits. However, they choose to be viewed in either way. They are acknowledging the perceived view of the other, internalizing it and then accepting or rejecting it.
Humans, in general, place a dangerous amount of judgment on the outward appearance. When you consider the fundamental aspects of preconceived beliefs and prejudices’ that every person in society carries with them, you start to place more weight on those types of decisions. This aspect is how we react to each other’s attendance based on superficial appearance. Our community houses some of the most intelligent individuals, they just may not wear what you would expect them to. How can we keep it balanced so that we draw some information from the visible; but the majority from the inner being? Whether they are rocking their favorite hacker tee, their best Louis Vuitton or just some cat ears; try to see them for who they are, not what they are wearing. Whether we are entirely casual or full glam we should be accepting of each other. We need to curb our own biases on how a hacker should look. The media does that enough for us. At the end of the day, we are all just naked. There are no in-group markers, no out-group shaming, just…us.