Here’s a long-overdue look at Dierdre Clemente’s book “Dress Casual,” which credits — or blames — college students for the concept of informal clothing. It’s a must for every serious student of the history of fashion and culture, and you can order it on Amazon here.
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Exposure to the world of tailored menswear enthusiasts, at least in its online incarnations, is often accompanied with sighs and lamentations on the casualization of American society. Casual Friday has seeped into the other workdays of the week, staining the pure white dress shirt and gray flannel suit with shades of purple polos, denim, and wildly designed running shoes. The most desperate menswear enthusiast simply refuses to live in the world that he sees around him and contents himself with being the only person in tailored clothing in a vast desert of “athleisure” wear.
But where does casual dress come from? What is behind this seemingly unstoppable impulse in America, and elsewhere, that prompts people to opt for comfort and practicality over starched collars and pressed trousers? Dierdre Clemente, professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (and an early contributor to Ivy-Style.com), explores this question, as well as the social significance of clothing and modes of dress in Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style. Clemente examines men’s and women’s wear on college campuses and beyond from the early 1900s through the rise of the Ivy League style and into the 1990s and the emergence of business casual. Clemente is no mere chronicler of fashion, however. She utilizes clothing as a means to chart monumental changes in American society. As Clemente points out “Casual clothing matters because it is what Americans increasingly wore as they lived out the “big picture” changes of the twentieth century: the rise of the middle class, consumerism, suburbanization, higher education, and women’s and civil rights.”
Clemente traces the modern American wardrobe to the first half of the twentieth century when middle-class college students vied with administrators and fashion promoters over control of campus dress. Then, as now, college students cherry-picked the styles peddled by magazines and variously opposed the requirements of school deans, and created a wardrobe uniquely their own. College students were the driving force behind the creation of casual dress, not Hollywood, high fashion houses, or adult elites. Clemente argues that the spread of casualness from campuses to the adult world could only have been accomplished by the middle-class who, increasingly, sent their sons and daughters to college. It was they alone who had the demographic power, financial means, and tendency to blur the lines between class, race, and gender that would make casual the default mode of dress for all Americans regardless of background. Casual dress, then, was the battle flag of the increasingly influential American middles.
Countering contemporary images of fashion as a female centered industry, Clemente reveals that it was college men who first came to prominence as arbiters of casual style. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a new young male, determined to control his own body and to define his own version of masculinity around idealized notions of athleticism, youth, and soft collars. Print exposés of college life, aimed at middle-class parents who aspired to send their own children to college, popularized the clothes worn by male collegians. Other popular magazines fostered the spread of casual styles to campuses across the country as student bodies vied with, and compared, one another. The era of the clean-cut, sweater-clad, pennant-waving college male had arrived.
Female college students underwent their own transformation as well though, unlike their male counterparts, they faced significant resistance from school administrators. School officials tried, with varying success, to mandate what female college students could wear in various social situations like attending classes or studying in the library. Clemente demonstrates that female college students faced the most restricting regulations on co-educational campuses. The heated mixture of young men and women, away from parental supervision for the first time, provided the battlegrounds on which students and administrators fought for sartorial supremacy.
Of course the administrators did not win. The wardrobe pioneered by college students, both men and women, was far too practical and versatile for the middle-class to ignore. Odd jackets, denim, casual shirts, and sweaters that could be worn in a variety of social situations gradually eclipsed the suit and other more formal garments, not only for college students, but middle-class adult men and women as well. Then, as now, American consumers looked to the young as the vanguards of style.
Clemente charts the changing wardrobe of the American college student in a way that will be satisfying for the collegiate style enthusiast. For instance, she details the collegiate male’s transition from the sack suit to the more casual sport coat or blazer as the foundation of daily campus wear. However, she also makes broader claims about race, class, and gender that elevates her book from a simple modern day antiquarianism to a work that makes significant contributions to historical discussions about consumerism, youth culture, and the increasingly blurred lines between the upper, middle, and lower strata of American society. Clemente is not the first to focus on popular styles of clothing and material culture to explain changing social conditions, however, she is the first that I know of to place clothes themselves at the center of the story in a modern context. What Michael Zakim did, in his ground breaking work Ready Made Democracy: A History of Men’s Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860 for early American history, Clemente does for modern America. Dress Casual is a worthwhile and accessible read for both the lay-enthusiast and the scholar of social history. — PANI M.