It’s hard to tell these days whether an epidemic of sleep-walking is plaguing the nation, or, we’ve simply morphed into a colony of lounge lizards. One quick glance at your surroundings, and it seems as though the days of dressing to impress have become largely passé in favor of a just-rolled-out-of-bed presentation that undoubtedly has entire armies of style icons rolling over in their graves.
“Clothing has become much more ambiguous, and the way we present ourselves to the world isn’t about gender and class anymore,” says Dr. Deirdre Clemente, historian of 20th-century American culture and author of the forthcoming book, “Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style.” “Once you took those meanings out of clothes, a lot of the rules of decorum started to slip. And they also gave rise to comfort as the primary factor in dressing.”
It wasn’t too terribly long ago when the modern-day definition of formal wear equated to everyday dress worn to accomplish the most routine of tasks such as grocery shopping, attending church, or even just sitting down to dinner. Ladies didn’t just appear, they made an entrance. Gentlemen were dapper, not disheveled.
Can anyone truly visualize Audrey Hepburn going to enjoy “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” while wearing a pair of sweatpants with the words “PINK” or “Juicy” emblazoned on the derriere, or Cary Grant enticing Deborah Kerr into “An Affair to Remember” sporting some flannel pajama bottoms and a hoodie? What if James Bond opted for a pair of saggy jeans with his BVDs hanging out instead of his iconic suit? Would the message have gotten lost in the translation?
“Clothes and what you’re wearing never doesn’t mean something. Anytime you put on anything, it’s impossible to say that you’re not signaling some kind of desire. … It’s about self-image and identity — what you want to look like and what you think you’re expected to look like,” says Brian Horrigan, exhibit curator for the Minnesota Historical Society and curator for “The 1968 Exhibit,” which is on a nationwide tour.
In Emily Post’s legendary book, “Etiquette,” an entire chapter was dedicated to outlining the proper “Clothes of a Gentleman.” Hanging in his wardrobe were formal evening clothes, a tuxedo, house suit, formal afternoon dress and a business suit. Tips on jewelry yays and nays, what to wear while in the country and other declarations made no mistake about the way in which a man was to present himself.
“Clothes are to us what fur and feathers are to beasts and birds; they not only add to our appearance, but they are our appearance. How we look to others entirely depends upon what we wear and how we wear it; manners and speech are noted afterward, and character last of all,” Post wrote.
It would be easy to scoff at such quaint notions, to say that we’ve matured past these kinds of superficial attempts to make a good impression. Granted, when Post penned her etiquette bible, it was 1922. Yet, the amount spent on fashion in the United States alone tops a whopping $250 billion annually, reports Statistic Brain. Yes, billion. That’s a big chunk of change to spend for a nation that reportedly doesn’t give a hoot.
So when exactly did we just stop caring about what we were wearing?
The fingers of most experts point to the latter half of the Swinging Sixties as the tipping point in which outward appearances began to mirror the societal unrest being felt by a nation going through some serious growing pains. Sure, it wasn’t the first time when clothing was used as an outlet for rebellion, but never before had it so drastically altered the way in which people chose to express an inherent desire to defy the often rigid confines of propriety.
“Dress codes were officially done away with in the 1960s,” Clemente says. “Every era is so directly tied to the clothes, but I think that Americans really understood it as what it was, which was a revolution in how we dress.”
Fashion and textile historian Katy Werlin agrees that the latter half of the ’60s were the tipping point; however, she also holds modern technology responsible for the current trend in which comfort trumps all.
“I think with the increase of social media, we’re all constantly connected all the time and there’s no longer a divide between our public selves and our private side. Because the informality of the private world has kind of bled into our public life, our social life, the same has happened for fashion and clothes,” she says.
It’s an ironic message that’s being conveyed, according to Horrigan. Whether it’s the hippies in the ’60s or the hipsters of today, “People are saying that they’re being really casual and ‘I don’t really care what I look like’ when, in fact, it’s a very carefully crafted ‘I don’t care.’ ”
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he contends. “I think, on the whole, it’s a healthy thing that we feel a little bit more unlaced than what we used to.”
Those waxing poetic for the days when airplanes were filled with suits rather than sweats, and pajamas were never seen in public, however, needn’t lose hope. As far as Werlin is concerned, what goes around comes around, even in the world of fashion.
“Fashion is very cyclical, and if you study fashion history, you see trends repeat themselves,” she says. “There’s nothing new out there under the sun. So, I’m sure maybe in 50 years we might be back to dressing very proper and dressing up, and then we’ll go back to the really casual look. It will keep cycling.”
Kate Benz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media and can be reached at [email protected] or 412-380-8515.