Monday, May 1, 2006

"Clothes make the man"

I often think and write about changing times. Today, change is rapid and seems to be accelerating. My dad grew up on a family farm with mules for horsepower; in the year of his birth (1913), there were probably still more horses than cars. By the year in which he died (2001), the American family farm was nearly extinct, having been carved up into lots for suburban housing or absorbed into factory farms, where animals are treated like products, not living beings. Even certain breeds of draft horse are endangered or threatened (see the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy). Within my dad's 88 years, the U.S. was paved over with interstates, malls, shopping centers, and parking lots; men landed on the moon; and radio filled the home entertainment void, then TV, then the Internet, online gaming, and video games. And that's only the barest glimpse of how much has changed.

It makes me wonder what I will see happen in the next 20–40 years of my life—what new technologies, devices, conveniences, treatments, and cures will arise, as well as the ensuing problems that such changes invariably create.

One change that has occurred in my lifetime is a small social one, but it's worth mentioning as it is so prevalent. It's our switch to casual dress in almost any setting.

I thought of this a few days ago when I saw a couple of families entering one of the churches downtown. Adults and children alike wore jeans and tee shirts. They could have been entering McDonald's, a tavern, or a sports stadium, judging by their dress.

This is quite different from when I was a child, when men and even boys wore suits and ties, and women and girls wore dress or skirts—no slacks or even pantsuits. Jesus may have dressed casually, but you were expected to approach and enter the house of God with respect, and respect meant dressing up. Even when girls stopped wearing dresses to school, they still wore them to church.

The American attitude toward dress has, of course, changed. In the late 1980s, my then Big 8 consulting firm implemented casual Fridays. At first, if I remember correctly, it was in the summers only, then it was extended to every Friday year-round, then to every day. The only exception was if you had meetings with clients or vendors, or similar activities. All but a few sticks in the mud were ecstatic, and even the partners began wearing business casual clothing on the rare days on which they didn't have meetings.

As for me, I loved it. I had always hated wearing dresses (to school, church, or work), and trying to pull pantyhose up over sweaty, sticky, fat legs in 90ºF, high-humidity weather became an epic challenge and a heroic effort (with many pairs damaged as a result).

My new company also switched to business casual every day, with similar exceptions, at some point after I started. At this point, I don't even have a dress wardrobe left, even when I need it.

Now, when you walk around downtown Chicago during a weekday, it is the man or woman wearing a conservative business suit who stands out as the exception, the oddity. Except for occasional ethnic attire or trendy costume, the rest of us march in a uniform of casual, virtually indistinguishable, shirts, tops, and bottoms.

Casual attire has evolved in conjunction with the team-oriented workplace, in which work is done, in theory, in collaboration and by consensus, in which "leaders" guide and mentor rather than simply order and decide. Yet, for some reason, a person wearing a suit seems to command unspoken respect, at least more so than someone sporting a golf shirt and slacks. If a vendor comes in and sees three men in business suits and three in casual dress, the odds are good that they will address the bulk of their proposal to the "suits," whom they will assume are the decision makers.

I suspect that those who wear suits are also treated differently outside the workplace. I can picture security guards, cab drivers, maître d's, servers, even traffic control officers, showing greater deference to the elite in suits than to the masses in business casual.

I've read that business dress is coming back, but I haven't seen it. I don't often see anyone voluntarily dressing up for work; the joke has always been that someone who shows up at work in a suit or dress must have a job interview.

As much as I prefer casual dress and the symbolic (not actual) egalitarianism that it implies, I admit that I miss the professionalism and a certain distance that seemed to go along with a more formal attire. Perhaps it is even the sense that clothing separates the different aspects of our lives—that casual wear is for one's personal life and that dress is for work, that the two are separate spheres. Now, with people working 80-hour weeks, working at home, working on the road, working while on vacation, using cell phones, laptops, BlackBerrys and PDAs, and ubiquitous wireless connections, these separate spheres of home and office, personal and work, are merging—or have merged—into an amorphous blob.

Off to work we go, or to church, to dine, to visit family or friends, to a date, to a baseball game, to home—it's all the same to us, judging from the way we dress. If "clothes make the man," what kind of men (and women) are we? What is left that is special enough to dress for, to care about?

1 comment:

  1. Funerals, I guess. That's the only place I see people still wearing suits and dresses. At least here in California, home of year round shorts and t attire. My jaw dropped one Sunday many years ago when I saw a woman show up at church in short-shorts and a halter top. I suppose she couldn't be bothered tieing a wrap around her bum. Amazingly, no one else seemed to bat an eye; I guess they were used to her attire.

    I remember the days when one dressed up for doctor's appointments and airline trips. If you look at the ads of the fifties, everyone was dressed smartly as they skipped up the jetway and turned to give bon voyage waves to their friends. Come to think of it, those were the days when taking a plane ride was an occasion, not a daily shlep.

    The future of dress and other social mores? I wonder. Our daughter works for a Big 8 consulting firm whose HQ is in Boston, and business casual is still the rule. She rather likes the feeling of getting dressed up to go to work and meet with clients. Nicely tailored pants, cashmere sweater - may those always be classics and never out of style.

    As always you have written a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.