Mark Zuckerberg is on Capitol Hill this week to parade his remorse for Facebook’s irresponsible data policies in front of two separate congressional panels. Congressional hearings usually offer as much spectacle as substance: Grandstanding senators ask rhetorical questions in hopes of rallying their bases; people called to give testimony can turn the whole event into a venue for their own insufferable facial expressions.
The pageantry of the first Zuckerberg hearing, before two Senate committees, is elevated by his costume. The Facebook co-founder, the fifth richest person in the world, is notorious for his usual uniform of a heathered T-shirt and jeans, with the occasional hoodie to stave off Bay Area breezes. On Tuesday, as expected, he arrived at his hearing in a suit.
Zuckerberg’s outfit is not simply staider than his usual tech-bro getup. It’s so somber that it wouldn’t look out of place at a funeral. There is no hint of flair or flourish—only clean lines, the bulky sheen of his tie, and jacket and pants in a navy so dark, it could almost be black. The cutaway collar of his shirt hints at his self-conception as a bold, forward-thinking entrepreneur. In that context, the Facebook brand-identity blue of the tie underneath reads as a token of narcissism. Zuckerberg isn’t just representing Facebook. The company itself is a personal accessory worn like a medal—or an albatross—around his neck.
The T-shirt–and-hoodie shtick is a critical component of Zuckerbergian performance. It fuses the savant-ish worship-courting of a Steve Jobs with the “I’m too busy changing the course of humanity to care about my looks” of a Bill Gates and the blameless idealistic naiveté of a child. Since his start, Zuckerberg has leaned on his babyfaced looks whenever he’s been called to task for a breach of ethics, decency, or law. Even as he’s built one of the world’s largest fortunes and most powerful companies—one capable of influencing elections and stoking genocides—Zuckerberg has maintained the goofy, fun-seeking demeanor of a businessman far less cutthroat than himself.
In a congressional hearing room, forced into the clothes grown-ups wear, that image withered. He’s not just the guy down the hall who made the word friend a verb, who speaks passionately about connecting people across languages and cultures, who posts heartwarming dad content about his paternity leave. With a T-shirt on, Zuckerberg resembles a benign, flesh-colored polyp emerging to greet its first light of day. In a suit, as Liz Raiss noted at GQ, Zuckerberg is wearing a dog’s cone of shame, a visual signifier of both his public humiliation and the likelihood that he’ll nibble his stitches, causing further injury if not physically restrained. He has been strapped into a protective shell built to defend against hostile elements, including himself.
But even with his hair cropped closer to his head than usual, his hairline visibly receding, Zuckerberg’s age clouds his influence. Sitting in front of the congressional panel, alone at a table, Zuckerberg looks like a sheepish college student called before a disciplinary board. A college student can be expelled, though, and what is a meager joint committee hearing compared to the global corporate surveillance dragnet of Facebook? Zuckerberg will never take a more recognizable 20th-century form of the money- and power-driven capitalist he is. At least on Tuesday, for the visual clarity of C-SPAN viewers, he was forced to dress like one.