Too many of us right now are dressed like a bunch of sloppy kindergarteners, one big blithering mass of exposed underwear, San Jose Sharks jackets and rock-climbing boots. Such is the state of our sartorial nation on the cusp of a new millennium. A slow move to "casual" throughout the last century has now accelerated to such a style-destroying fever pitch that I truly believe folks are getting too casual about casual.
When did this relatively new phenomena of casual men's dress begin? The history of clothing is as old, minus an hour or two, as man himself, though, one can be reasonably sure, primitive man didn't have one leaf outfit for working and another differently designed leaf outfit for lounging around his cave on the weekends. Today's casual clothing really has its roots in the beginning of this century, when the well-to-do created specific costumes for enjoying leisure.
Most outfits were for outdoor recreational pursuits -- hunting, yachting, fishing, hiking, safari-ing (and still exist in some form today, though the yachting blazer-and-ascot look is rare.) Ironically, many of these garments were variations on real working man's clothes -- the safari jacket is a looser version of a military jacket; the heavy tweeds and sweaters originate with the hard-workin' rural folk of the northern British Isles. Even the much-maligned 1970s leisure suit was a direct descendent of upper-class casual dress. The leisure suit, first worn in the 1930s, was a long, loosely-cut, open-collared short-sleeved jacket with a built-in belt, worn over matching trousers (or occasionally even as a one-piece jumpsuit type thing!)
Such dress was hardly universal and was associated with specific "costumed" activities like hunting. Ordinary leisure, like ball games, movies and walks in the park, still demanded proper dress for everyone. After W.W. II, stable prosperous times upped the leisure time quotient for most Americans and established a ready market for "weekend wear", clothes suitable for the suburban backyard barbecue (private, not public space) or all those family vacations.
Contemporary casual dress began in the 1960s, and ka-boomed in 1970s. These were the decades when casual crossed-over and began its ascendancy to the dominant style. The rigid time-honored rules for men's clothing were loosened and even shattered. Some formerly necessary articles of men's dress disappeared entirely (the handkerchief, the hat, the light tailored topcoat); other traditional staples like the necktie, two-piece suit and dress shirt "loosened up" (bolder colors and patterns, unusual fabrics) or mutated to more casual alternatives (the sportscoat, the T-shirt with suit).
In less than a generation, the standards had changed and there was a huge variety of casual clothing available for men. Though decried occasionally by traditionalists, these new dress codes were embraced virtually by all. Just look at the range of casual clothing the Biggest Boss in the country, the President, has worn since the mid-1970s. More importantly, casual dress was no longer reserved for leisure time or the private sphere. It had become the accepted dress style for nearly anywhere and anytime.
Ball of Fashion Confusion
So we've pushed aside restrictive fashion regulations, and now we're all so damned comfortable and casual, but what a big fashion mess we're in! As casual skittles towards into anything goes, men, especially, are losing the lore, the passed-along knowledge of how to dress. Such ignorance breeds mutant dress standards like "semi-formal" and "semi-casual". Both are oxymorons. Either one is formally dressed (classically and clearly defined as black tie and tuxedo) or one is not. Ironically, though semi-formal usually means "less than formal", semi-casual means "go up a bit from casual." It's not just bad language; people are confused and fearful. What is the right thing to wear? Is requiring proper dress imposing on someone's right to dress however they choose? Such ignorance and worry generates non-committal terms like "semi-formal."
Casual dress is seemingly everywhere but not everywhere was meant to be casual. There is no inalienable right to be casually dressed, yet even traditional dress-upped rites and institutions such as funerals, weddings, church, five-star restaurants and court now accept casual dress, rather than alienate or offend. (Turn on Court TV and marvel at how casually dressed people are when on trial!) Once casual could be construed as defiance. Refusing to wear the expected clothing dress for church, court or mom's party sent a message of protest against the social institution itself. Today, it's not worth the bother. When I see somebody casually dressed at a serious affair, I know that they thought it would be OK or even that it is OK. Casual has become that overwhelming.
I'm mystified by the fashion-work dance of the '90s known as "Casual Fridays." It seems symptomatic of all our anxiety about going too casual and losing all meaning of dress. What's the point of being casual one day out of the workweek? Why is what is perfectly acceptable on Friday, not acceptable on Tuesday? And conversely, the man who shows up in a suit on Friday is jeered at, until he says, "I have a big client meeting." Then there are nods of agreement. So, it is important to be nicely dressed. It does matter.
Proponents say Casual Friday is a great morale booster that helps break down the distances between drones and bosses and fosters a "work family" atmosphere. Happy workers are productive workers, goes the maxim. If this is such a desirable state of business affairs, why restrict it to just 20 percent of the work week? Why not have pumped-up happy workers 100 percent of the time? While some companies have gone full-on casual (indeed, many start up companies of the New Casual Era, especially high-tech, crow about their commitment to casual), it cannot be accepted totally. If there's any proof about how conflicted we are, and how deeply our associations with dress go, try and conjure up some casually dressed authority figures. Are you comfortable with Peter Jennings reading the evening news in an ABC News T-shirt? Would you pay $100 an hour to be counseled by an attorney in shorts and sport sandals? Right or wrong, there is authority in dress.
Widespread Problems with Casual
Four "accepted" varieties of casual clothing, in particular, trouble me. To me, the first two are evidence that casual has become too inclusive of any dress. The latter two problems illustrate how easily and completely the meaning of clothing can be perverted through casual.
Toddlerdom. Lately, it's been trendy to regress and adopt affectations of toddlerdom -- the constant baggy clothes, nothing tucked in or pulled up, garments raggedy or dirty -- all ready for the perpetual playground. Little kids are messy and grimy and their clothes never fit right. That's part of their charm. Adults, on the other hand, are expected to know how to dress themselves and stay neatly put-together. Casual is not a euphemism for sloppy or slovenliness.
Billboards. The wearing of clothing that promotes soft drinks, basketball footwear, fashion designers or $8 hamburger chain restaurants is not "casual," it's advertising. Until recently, most promotion-via-clothing was concentrated on one garment -- the T-shirt and in one place -- the front. Now "designers," like demented, cranked-out taggers, have splattered their names and logos on every conceivable article of clothing and in every place -- between the shoulder blades, down the leg of the pants, on the turtleneck. Some believers walking down the street look as logo-cluttered as a NASCAR vehicle. The garment with logo is like some perversion of tribal skin markings. ("I'm with Tribe Reebok.") Consider the painful insecurity of having to broadcast the names of preferred drinks, skateboards and college ball teams to strangers in order to win their approval.
Work Costumes and Extreme Outfits. Here's an amusing truth: Today's casual clothing, the togs worn while not working are rooted in work, real grimy, back-breaking work. Denim is long past its work-only days, though a recent advertising campaign of Lee Jeans ("We went back [to hard working men of the early 20th century] and took their pants") proves that the association is still desirable. "Extreme" leisurewear is also popular. Polar-ready parkas, clumpy heavy-soled boots, light-reflective strips -- everybody is poised for death-defying and arduous activities that will never occur. Folks amble through their ever-more-cushy lives clad in this weird modern armor of extreme sportswear and workwear, ready to deflect all hazards. (This is not unrelated to the proliferation of extra-tough 4-wheel drive sport utility vehicles needed for today's super-smooth highways.)
There's an absurdity to the look, like dress-up or little children in adult costumes. The child in the sailor suit isn't off to sea, nor is the man in the Gortex jacket at the grocery store just this minute back from conquering the Himalayans. Such garments are ultimately emasculated through everyday use, their meaning and function sapped, as Arctic wear becomes preferred style of the Connecticut suburbs. Still more credibility is lost through the kiddie-style, make-it-cute alteration of this clothing -- fancy stitching on denim work pants, retro-style mechanic's jumpsuits with zippy trendy logos or biking gear in extra-bright, childlike jazzy colors. It's all form, not function.
Save It For the Gym, Buddy. Raise your hand if you're wearing any athletic clothing. How many of you broke a sweat just raising your hand? Despite what King Nike says, we're really a nation of under-exercising, over-eating, out-of-shape blobs. In light of this irrefutable information, I propose a total ban on athletic clothing, unless you are currently being athletic! Back in the mid-'70s, Elvis used to heave his lumpy, drugged self in and out of Cadillacs clad in his favorite day-to-day wear, a two-piece striped track suit. It was considered a joke. That crazy, overweight hillbilly, they snickered, pretending to be a karate expert. Sad, but true.
And yet millions are following in "sporty" Elvis' footsteps. Every Joe out there is wearing sweat pants, hockey jerseys, football tear-aways, all manner of athletic footwear (what used to be known collectively as gym shoes or sneakers, now cross-marketed into oblivion), baseball caps (never a fashion statement, it's just a piece of mesh plastic with a logo on it), warm-up jackets, sports sandals (what sport requires sandals anyhow?!) bicycle shorts and track suits. Nobody mistakes them for athletes. There's no responsibility to live up to the garment's original intent, so where's the cachet? Athletic ability is about the body, what it can and can't achieve, not about how much air is trapped between space-age polymers in $150 shoes. Remember, the original Olympians competed in the nude!
De-evolution of Meaning
"Casual" is a word born from contrast. If there is no formal, no dressed up, no suit and tie, there can be no casual. This may be the root of a future problem. When what is casual today is accepted for the norm (as in many workplaces already), then is there something "less" than that for leisure time? How do we distinguish between work and non-work? Unemployed writer or financial analyst? Are we really striving for one of those sci-fi futures where everybody wears the same asexual, amorphous casual outfit all the time? The irony is - casual was meant to expand wardrobes, to free us from the tyranny of all-suit, all-the-time, to provide options. Is the future just a pair of baggy sweats and a stretched out polo shirt?
On the surface, this lack of distinction may seem utopian (finally, the classless society of our dreams!), but we're not ready for it. Dress serves basic function like protection and adornment, but also broadcasts a complex set of social signals -- mating calls, occupation, gender, age, class position, even marking space and time, through fads and changing fashions. Now, casual is making everything all higgly-piggly! The rich kid is wearing the $200 knock-off gas station attendant jacket. The kid pumping gas is wearing a Gas-n-Go polo shirt (once the outfit of the extra-rich, now just a better class of advertising T-shirt, a uniform.)
Casual is not wrong per se. Indeed, the freedom to dress down is a welcome respite for all, but one must be careful. Perhaps the door has been thrown open a bit too wide and bit too hastily. There is an abuse of the privilege -- the aforementioned "problems" and the too-easy proliferation of casual into all aspects of life, despite the clear evidence that people can't be casual all the time and don't really want everybody to be casual. We're in danger of losing a sense of proportion about dress and its meaning. Clothing always makes a statement, and it's wise to remember that casual is just one thing to say.