Make America Stylish Again: Why Our Culture Of Casual Needs To Go

Edith Head, the Academy Award-winning costume designer, once said, “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” If that’s true, then maybe we need to reassess what our clothing choices are communicating about our hopes and goals.

By Hana Tilksew3 min read
Pexels/murat esibatir

It's no secret that America’s approach to clothing is more careless than it is in other parts of the world. Here, not only do everyday people go out and about regularly in sweatpants, but elected legislators have even been seen wearing graphic tees and shorts on the Senate floor. Though we've accepted this extreme informality as simply part of our culture, it wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, our country's style icons were glamorous and refined. In the ‘50s, "house dresses" were a closet staple. In the ‘60s, Jackie Kennedy inspired a generation of women to wear pillbox hats and white gloves everywhere. Where did we go wrong? Why have we abandoned everyday elegance? And how on earth can we ever get it back?

A More Fashionable Age

Not too long ago, America was one of the hottest centers of the global fashion industry. In 1943, New York City arguably hosted the first real Fashion Week. In the latter half of the 20th century, American designers like Ralph Lauren and Anne Klein became legends in their field. In the ‘90s, it girls like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Jennifer Aniston made American style synonymous with understated elegance. Even though simplicity has long been a part of our country’s style ethos – denim, clean lines, Western silhouettes – being subtle never meant being sloppy. There was once an unspoken expectation in our culture that when you left your house, you looked ready to present yourself to the rest of the world.

In other countries, this expectation still exists. For example, while walking the streets of Paris, you’d find it much more difficult to spot someone wearing pajama bottoms to a university lecture or gym shoes to a house party. In fact, one of the most common complaints that foreigners have about Americans is that we have no idea how to dress properly for any given occasion. The summer of 2023 was widely declared as #EuroSummer, but when American tourists descended on Europe, locals were quick to call many of us out online for how identifiable we were based on our clothing choices. America’s culture of casual is making us an international laughingstock, so why do we insist on clinging to our athleisure and pjs?

America’s culture of casual is making us an international laughingstock, so why do we insist on clinging to our athleisure and pjs?

It’s Not Just About Clothes

If you’re someone who doesn’t care about fashion, this unfortunate reputation may not matter to you. But the sad truth is that America’s decline in sartorial presentability has coincided with the decline of a lot of our other standards. We’re not just overly casual about what we wear; we’re also overly casual about romance (hookup culture is at its most rampant), what we eat (45% of American adults under 40 consume fast food on any given day), and even who we elect to government office (just look at who currently runs things). Our closets have gotten sloppier as our entire culture has gotten sloppier.

With physical and mental health statistics continuing to plummet in America, it may feel like getting our outfits in order should be last on our list of concerns. But as the old wisdom goes, “When you look good, you feel good.” Taking pride in your appearance naturally spurs you to behave with more dignity in other areas of your life as well. After all, if you forgo your favorite tracksuit for a cute dress and a blazer, you might not feel as comfortable rotting in bed as you would with the tracksuit on. You’ll feel motivated to get out of your room and do something productive, to become the well groomed girl that you’re dressed as. Striving to look put-together isn’t about vanity, but self-respect.

Striving to look put-together isn’t about vanity, but self-respect.

Dressing up on a daily basis doesn't only have a positive effect on the person doing it, but also on those around them. By making yourself presentable when face-to-face with someone, whether it’s their first or their millionth impression of you, you’re showing consideration to them. As Tom Ford himself once said, “Dressing well is a form of good manners.” A little extra effort paid to our attire goes a long way to let the people we interact with know that we respect them and take them seriously enough to bother changing out of stained sweatpants or a baggy tank top to be a little more sophisticated in front of them. Most of us would never dream of meeting the superstars we admire looking like we got dressed in the dark, so why not show that same level of regard to our friends and family?

Bringing Style Back

In the land that gave the world drive-thru meals and GPS, it can’t be very shocking that we enjoy convenience. But in recent years, Americans’ love of comfort has gone too far. In a culture that seems to have abandoned effort altogether, it can feel like pointless rebellion to try. After all, who wants to stick out from the herd? But although one woman caring a little more about what she puts on her back is just a drop in the bucket that may not convince anyone else to follow suit overnight, we need to take baby steps before we can attempt any great leaps.

What do these baby steps look like? For one, establishing clear boundaries in our closet for what identifies as “for home use only” vs. “acceptable for the general public to see me wearing.” Blurring the lines between what we wear to nap on the couch when we’re sick and what we wear to grab coffee with our friends is a dangerous habit. As Americans, we’ve sacrificed many aspects of our lifestyles to laziness, and our personal style is only one victim. It’s time for us to ask ourselves: Is comfort really the end all, be all in every circumstance? Would it kill us to perhaps start finding comfort in looking respectable, instead of in being as underdressed as possible?

If you’ve grown attached to your loungewear and this seems like an impossible feat, try it just once. Tomorrow, make the decision to wake up and get beautifully dressed for an everyday occasion, whether that’s work, class, or running errands. When you realize how much more confident and capable you feel, as well as how much you elevate the elegance of a room simply by walking into it, you’ll never want to go back.

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