Over the past few decades, we’ve collectively traded suits and evening gowns for basketball shorts and yoga pants. Nothing summarized this phenomenon more succinctly than when the U.S. Senate briefly decided that formal attire was no longer required to represent the most powerful country on Earth. But this change didn’t happen overnight. It’s been slowly chipped away – and no one did anything about it.
Back in 2015, Time Magazine recognized the development of casual style as “one of the most profound cultural changes of the 20th century” – and they were right. Not because casual style had never existed, but because it suddenly became an acceptable way of dress for absolutely everything.
Proponents of casual style often point to comfort. We simply want to be comfortable all the time. But should comfort be our highest priority in all things? Moreover, is comfort something that modern day people uniquely desire? And if other people throughout history have sought comfort but maintained class in their style, how can we replicate that today?
History and Misconceptions
It’s remarkable how few eyebrows are raised at the trend of constant casual wear, given how wholly unique to us it is. Is dressing well just a historical legacy we’ve decided we’re too good for?
Though having a wide variety of clothes was not something that was historically available to lower class people, the distinction certainly existed among the upper classes. As resources became more plentiful, greater clothing choices slowly trickled down to the general population.
Moreover, throughout history, levels of comfort for clothes designed for different activities have also always existed. Take the corset – whose earliest form appeared in the 16th century and which undoubtedly has one of the worst historical reputations out there. Corsets had a range of designs, and just because some could be fastened until a woman’s waist disappeared into oblivion doesn’t mean that’s how they were used in reality. The type of corset your average woman wore was one made for working, most often in domestic service.
In an interview with the Smithsonian, dress historian Hilary Davidson scoffed at the idea that women “walked around in these uncomfortable things that they couldn’t take off, because patriarchy.”
“And they [women] put up with it for 400 years? Women are not that stupid,” Davidson added.
Just as women today understand that they can put up with heels, a stick-on bra, and a shaper for their evening event, people throughout history understood the same idea. Nobody was wearing a three-piece suit or a crinoline to bed.
Low, Lower and Lowest Expectations
As historian Deirdre Clemente pointed out to Time Magazine, “Casual clothes are the uniform of the American middle class.” That suggests that culturally we’ve begun to believe that the activities of regular people aren’t important enough to dress well for, nor do we need to differentiate between the significance and needs of certain events in choosing appropriate outfits.
A quick glimpse at pictures of Depression-era breadlines will show men – in poverty – still dressed to the nines to pick up their daily rations. The modern-day West has unimaginable resources with which to create, yet we’re treated to the worst of clothing to satisfy an insatiable desire to consume. But isn’t progress supposed to mean that all, especially those less fortunate, begin to have not only more options but better ones?
It’s true that in the past, people simply had fewer clothes. Sometime around the 1970s, with the invention of synthetic materials in full swing and the outsourcing of production to mass factories abroad, cheap, comfort-oriented clothing began penetrating fashion circles. Fast forward to today, and we’ve traded quality, style, and ethics so we can all have closets stuffed to the brim with synthetic rags we’ll never wear anyway.
Of course, lower class people throughout history didn’t have the newest garments from Paris, but their clothes, though simple, still conveyed dignity. People, no matter their place in life, felt a pride in their society and that it was indeed part of their moral duty to uphold that culture.
Relationships in Society
An integral part of upholding a healthy society is balancing the relationships of its constituents, and casual dress codes have been utterly detrimental in that pursuit. The break in the distinction between public and private clothes has also shattered basic rules of etiquette. It’s no wonder we’re entitled to approach everything so casually – with no topics off the table – when we see people walking around in clothes that we were never meant to see them in.
Whether we recognize it consciously or not, we pick up on the intimacy that certain clothing choices convey, and it breaks barriers that should, in theory, exist between strangers. This all comes in addition to the intrusive nature of social media, which already opens the door to people’s private lives and allows anonymous users to comment, often with foul or vulgar language, in ways they may have never dared in person.
Beyond breaking down the essential public/private distinction, our modern interpretation of casual dress has confused the relationships between men and women. When 30-year-old men walk around in “Avengers Assemble” t-shirts, it doesn’t command respect – not from women, nor from other men. When women bare everything everywhere, it trades the grace women desire for a vulgarity demanded by an increasingly sexually permissive society. When men and women dress in androgynous, shapeless, cheaply-made, mass-produced clothes, they become indistinguishable from one another and to one another – an unappealing, grey clump of modernity. At best, the opposite sex is indifferent, and at worst, repulsed.
Wearing garments that are well designed and taken care of not only means that regular activities mean something, but it also conveys the message that some things are more important than others. We express that importance visually with how we choose to present ourselves for different occasions; this practice was common and well-understood throughout history.
With the deterioration of public/private distinctions, we’re slowly losing the ability to rank events in our lives that require more attention. We still intrinsically know this – at least for the most obviously important occasions. That’s why most people won’t show up to a job interview in a stained t-shirt – and, if they did, it wouldn’t leave a great impression on the hiring committee.
What’s the Issue?
Our problem is not that casual clothes never existed before. Our problem is that our casual clothes have become uglier, cheaper, and more revealing, and we’ve decided they’re good enough to wear whenever.
Maybe we’ve given up on our society, and our collective laziness has trapped us in the myth of comfort and convenience. Walk into your average clothing shop, and you’ll be inundated with hundreds of items, many of which look like they were specifically designed to pile up in landfills. For all the talk about unrealistic beauty standards, little attention is given to the fact that mass produced clothes are, in reality, made for no one but a generic consumer blob.
Of course, not everyone in the 1940s or ‘50s looked like Rita Hayworth or Grace Kelly, with perfectly tailored clothes, hair and makeup. But the average person could walk into a store and reasonably expect that the styles there were made to bring out the best in everyone. Take a trip to your local vintage shop and see how well the clothes have survived, thanks to the quality and craftsmanship of (usually local) tailors.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Thankfully, the U.S. Senate decided to reverse its decision on the formal dress code. This is a good sign that we inherently still understand why we dress well, but it’s also a warning we need to heed seriously.
Whether we like it or not, the way we present ourselves is a reflection not only of our own self-respect but the view and hope we have about society. If our society does not inspire us, and if we don’t feel compelled to present ourselves well for the sake of it, then we have no hope in our own future.
A healthy society requires its constituents to recognize who they are and convey the dignity they inherently possess as human beings, not just in their manner, but in the way they present themselves.
Today, we’re in desperate need of clothes that are meant to be worn by real people and not just briefly for an Instagram photo. We need clothes that are made to uphold the dignity of regular people in everyday life – clothes that show we believe in our future enough to dress up for it. That also means trading in our misconception that dressing well for daily activities means your clothes aren’t comfortable.
Most ordinary people won’t have big red carpet events to dress up for on a weekly basis, but when we ascribe dressing well only to those occasions, most people are left out and the message is clear – your regular life doesn’t matter enough. There is extraordinary beauty in living an ordinary life dedicated to your family, friends, and community – so much so that it deserves at least a fraction of the dignity we bestow upon other, more uniquely important events. We need to convey importance to our everyday because, in the end, all those “everydays” make up our lives.
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