Friday, May 11, 2018

Dress Up

From First Things:
How is it that we have gone from wearing suits and ties to the office to wearing T-shirts, baseball caps, and a variety of military garments and ranch hand wardrobes? Everyone who’s ever perused photos of baseball games (or almost any other crowded venue for that matter) in an old Life magazine from the mid-twentieth century finds it remarkable that the majority of men in the crowd are wearing white shirts and ties, and business hats (a category of menswear now extinct). The metamorphosis over such a relatively short time to polo shirts and cargo shorts on most of the crowd is a bit staggering, almost as though we were looking at two different species. The history, the sociology, the psychology of dress all seem to come rushing in to confound my thoughts. But then I’m not alone.

Let’s start with the history. The man’s tailored wardrobe—which has been with us vir­tually unchanged in form since just after the Civil War—has been under attack for half a century now. While the twentieth century can legitimately be thought of as the century of the suit, the high point of that garment seems to have come earlier rather than later. Some would say the oft-heralded demise of the suit and its accompanying accoutrements has been occasioned by the long trend towards comfort in clothing enhanced by breakthroughs in the science of fabrics. And there’s no doubt of the truth in this theory, particularly when you stop to consider that we live now in such a climate-controlled world that some people have not actually experienced the great outdoors except in moving from one Disneyland ride to another. Even the tailored wardrobe itself shows this trend towards comfort. Traditional business clothes—the heavily starched shirt, the thick, scratchy woolen suit, the almost bulletproof overcoat—weighed more than twice as much at the beginning of the twentieth century as they did at the end of it. Heavy, stiff, scratchy wool gave way to lighter, airier, and smoother fabrics, so that today a man’s suit can easily weigh in at a few ounces, rather than the ten to twenty pounds it would have in the early 1900s.

Then too, there’s the eminently sensible argument that the jettisoning of the tailored wardrobe is merely a part of the larger and ongoing “democratization” of dress that started to standardize the wardrobe with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and whereby we may all eventually be encased in the same synthetic coverall and molded plastic footwear. Still others will tell you the degeneration of the trad wardrobe is all part of the “me” generation’s retreat from social consciousness and public style, part and parcel of a general lack of empathy, manners, and responsibility. More ancient members of the community can often be overheard muttering that we will eventually descend into anarchy, barbarism, and loincloths. (Read more.)

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