This summer G. Bruce Boyer published a lengthy think piece in the magazine First Things called “Dress Up: What We Lost In The Casual Revolution.” I’ve only neglected sharing it here in a post as Bruce and I have brainstormed about recording a discussion about its main themes. Astute readers will recall that I’ve mentioned the idea of starting a podcast on topics related to style; it’s something I’d still like to pursue and will likely revisit when the hibernating months arrive.
The editors at First Things asked me to write a response to Boyer’s piece to keep the discussion going. There was a bit of a confusion, and I ended up writing a full essay when all they needed was a letter to the editor. I also went into full fogey “end-of-the-world” mode, which was kind of fun.
Ah well. Here’s the extended version. You can use the previous link above to read Boyer’s original piece, and this page at First Things has my truncated letter along with Boyer’s response to it.
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“Does the disappearance of dressing up,” the artist Hilaire Hiler once mused, “indicate the passing of Western Civilization?”
Well of course it does, and given the quote hails from the 1950s, how prescient of him to notice. Cue the chords of doom, for casual dress is indeed the result of a kind of entropy, a natural law of rise and fall, birth and death, civilization and decay. Like my friend and colleague the estimable Mr. Boyer, I too have argued that formal civic dress was dealt a fatal blow in 1967, making this year the dubious 50th anniversary of the birth of slob nation.
From opera-goers in track shoes and hiking fleece to professors in flip-flops lecturing students in pajama bottoms, the whole motley throng of lowest-common-denominator dressing face-planted on the slippery slope to slovenliness that fateful year half-a-century ago.
Sixty-seven is also the year everything began to turn topsy-turvy from a traditionalist’s point of view. At the same time that sideburns were creeping down and neckties coming off, anti-establishment ideology was taking hold in the arts, media, and especially academia, turning the university system upside-down through the deconstruction of objective standards of truth, beauty, and everything else. The students who symbolically burned their tweeds and flannels along with their draft cards went on to entrench the postmodernist worldview that now dominates universities, and classrooms today are overflowing with sweatpants and Marxism.
Concurrence does not confirm causality, but a lot of things have been happening over the past 50 years while sartorial standards have been plummeting. Mr. Boyer suggests that too much self-indulgent narcissism and do-your-own thing individualism have led to the loss of formal dress, as well as stirring up a kind of costumed charlatanism in the picture he paints of the man strolling Midtown Manhattan — a “solitary figure of freedom” — speciously clad as a cowboy.
But one could argue that the century-long push for casual dress by the young and educated (thoroughly detailed in Dierdre Clemente’s 2015 book “Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style”), is indicative not of too much individualism but rather too much collectivism, the egalitarian spirit that poet Charles Baudelaire decried as early as 1866 in his essay on dandyism, mocking “the rising tide of democracy…. which reduces everything to the same level.” Technological and social progress have brought us an inevitable sartorial Facebooking, in which billionaire owner and modest minion stand side by side without visual distinction, performing — to use the academic buzzword — equality.
It’s important to view the change in how we dress in directional terms: we are dressing down in relation to how we dressed before. Lamenting the decline of formality assumes a reactionary viewpoint, an acknowledgement that in order for some things to get better, others must get worse. “A democracy which is expressed by everybody dressing down,” wrote the fashion historian Pearl Binder in 1958, “is surely a spiritually impoverished democracy.”
Except, of course, that not everyone wants to see it that way. Some — and maybe they’re the last hope — hold out for a renaissance of formal modes of dress, despite all evidence that it is slipping away before our eyes, never to return.
Over the course of 20 years attending vintage-themed events in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, there is a certain personality type I regularly run into. This is the chronically overdressed “retro-eccentric” who believes he was born in the wrong era, and despises the common masses in their sneakers and jeans. But this sartorial reactionary, who usually owns a large number of hats, is never a conservative. He’s convinced that it’s actually things like free market economics, organized religion, competitive sports, institutional power structures, and other traditional concepts that have corrupted society and made everyone a slob.
The ethos of this style utopian — who looks backward for aesthetics and forward to the revolution — was colorfully expressed by a commenter on a menswear message board some years ago in a discussion of the Ivy League Look:
I want a messy, ugly, funky multicultural world with everyone in no socks and Weejuns grooving along to Jimmy McGriff. It’s a new hippydom based on proper shoulder line, half an inch of oxford cloth at the cuff and real selvedge 501s.
The key word, of course, is “everyone.” If only we could get everyone to act like we want them to! If only we could engineer a society based on rational principles, then everyone would behave rationally! It’s the sartorial expression of a sentiment dating back to Rousseau and the Enlightenment, the belief that if only the state could solve all of mankind’s problems, everyone would freely don the uniform of the utopia.
In contrast, believers in Original Sin will note that man is irrational and perverse, and that it’s stable social norms that clothe his body with dignity and elevate his spirit above the beastly. We are all sinners, and, if given the indulgence, will dress as poorly as we can. Especially if we no longer believe we are worth redeeming — nor in the concept of redemption itself. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD