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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sartorial Mediocrity

So is this where we've arrived? We’ve come so far… in the wrong direction. This image is humorous and sad but says a lot. Particularly in the U.S., “dressing down” has gotten carried away. Higher-end boutiques and men’s shops that were town staples for generations have gone out of business. Why? Not an easy question to answer as there are so many factors at work. I’m unsure anyone could adequately discuss and properly weigh the dynamics that got us here, much less give a clear idea of how we can return to elegance.

Mass merchandising, licensing and ready-to-wear had already eroded couture, but it seemed to take the biggest hit beginning in the 80’s. As more women entered the professional workforce and reached higher and higher levels as executives, couture had less place at the office and in their lives. Woman’s business suits, for example, became a staple so as to diminish the lines between the sexes. That’s understandable. It mirrored what woman were thinking (and know): that they could adequately compete with men in the business world. As a result, there was the inevitable blurring of the lines between masculine and feminine, even in terms of attire. No more frilly dresses. Even the staple women’s suit had a less feminine silhouette. I imagine the line of thinking was that “feminine” clothing would underscore that they are, indeed, women- thus different than the old guard. While trying to break through glass ceilings, the effort was to minimize differences between the sexes, not celebrate them. That was quite logical under the circumstances. Unfortunately there were unintended consequences.

For both men and woman, the dot-com craze provided an abundance of young techie entrepreneurs. Being young, not rooted in business culture, they wanted nothing to do with jackets and ties and instead wore jeans, khaki’s and sneakers. As they became successful with billion dollar plus IPO’s, everyone and their brother jumped in and adopted this new dress-down culture. Soon, even Wall Street took notice. Bankers see these kids coming in, so they dressed down and they began to mirror them, in part to make them less uneasy about dealing with the “suits”. “Casual Friday” became more popular and spread to everyday “business casual” in many companies.

When the dot-com craze became dot-bomb in 2000 and 2001, many companies began to reverse their position and returned to Casual Fridays with traditional business attire the rest of the week. With other companies, the business-casual policy stuck. In effect, the bar was lowered. Even the current President of the United States is seen without a tie as often as he is wearing one- and that’s arguably the most powerful executive in the world. It spread beyond business. Even the last bastion of getting dressed up- going to church, has reflected the cultural change. You see the younger generations wearing more casual clothes, jacket very optional- forget the tie. The older generations, some baby-boomers and virtually everyone older maintains a level of decorum and feels it would be disrespectful to not be dressed appropriately.

So where are we now? “Generation X”, loosely defined as those born in the 70’s, has little or no conception of getting dressed up, proper tailoring, what to look for in well made garments. Why would they? Many of their parents weren’t doing it and they learned from what they saw. The earliest wave of Gen-X began in the professional workforce in the early- to mid-90’s, running right into the dot-com era of dress. No on-the-job foundation of learning and practicing proper business attire. If business people wear chino’s and polo’s to work, what are they going to wear when dressing-down? It’s not pretty. Their bar, overall, was never very high so it’s no surprise that the majority are, well, sloppy. Gen-X has had and is having children, so the cycle is perpetuating itself. Even those who are still required to wear business attire illustrate a complete lack of understanding (or concern) for proper fit and tailoring. Again, they haven’t been taught or properly led and there are fewer tailors or small retailers than ever to show them how.

Sure, there are a myriad of other factors for this sartorial nightmare: a more entrepreneurial society working from home, couture and their mouthpieces- the fashion media no longer able to dictate trends and dress, fashion becoming bigger business and supplying mass merchandise to the lowest common denominator. The list goes on and I can’t quantify who and what had the most impact.

The fact is, we are where we are. Will we continue to get lower and lower? Will t-shirts and sweatpants become de rigueur? In the history of mankind, dressing well has been important to self-esteem as well as a factor in how people are treated. Has that changed permanently now from these generations that either doesn’t care or understand? Personally, I fit right in that 70’s Gen-X bracket but I know I’m a rare throwback for my generation and generations that have followed. I love looking nice, dressing classically. It’s easy to set yourself apart in this day and age if you dress well. Is this our legacy? Is the toothpaste out of the tube and no going back? What can turn it around? I don’t have the answers. I would love to hear from you, the readers, what are your thoughts?

5 comments:

Edward said...

I believe it will swing back as more people realize how drab the world has become with it's current lack of elegance. Though, as Plato warned us, democracies will tend toward the lowest common denominator, thus jeans and tees.

Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave said...

Not to sound the curmudgeon bell, but I do wonder at the responsibility of the Boomer generation as we birthed and raised you Gen Xers. Somewhere in our rampant protests against the societal quo, we denied training our children to dress. My own 80's born children were in the minority when it came to being dressed for formal functions and special events.
It may then be a simple lack of training. Coming of age in the early 70's, I may have pitched the clothes my mother gave me--but I couldn't lose the ingrained knowledge. It is still fun to break many of the rules--but there is a further tickle knowing I'm breaking them.

Mary said...

My husb. works for a Fortune 500 Co., when he starte 25 yrs. ago -- tie & jacket were required. Now, business casual, for @ 15 yrs. At church, as this article states, ties/jackets, dresses ( even here in the South )have given way to jeans. My teenage daughter begged us to let her dress down at church b/c she was the only one in dresses. My sons wore ties even when they were the only ones. They just didn't feel right dressing down at church.
Will it swing back? I don't know. I hope so.

valwords said...

Dressing is hard-wired, like catechism, and best learned by the age of twelve. I come from the generation of women who donned white gloves to board a plane, and lurched from Nina Ricci to Carnaby Street. My ideal of beauty is still Carmen del Orifice. The present generation has no idea how much emotion is contained and artfully expressed through clothes.
My mother's closet was filled with not just with fabric but with specific memories: from her riding clothes, to her evening dresses, to the Carmen Miranda costume, laden with fruit, she once wore to a costume party, each outfit represented a different mood or phase of life. My own closet,too, has become a sort of diary. When I first moved to California, each purchase I made was instinctive; How would this look on 57th Street? Would it pass the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" test? Elegant and severe--yet still slightly gamine? It didn't matter that I'd be better served by a J Peterman duster in the Sonoma storms. I was still looking for something in the vein of my vintage Pauline Trigere jumpsuit, my Victor Joris velvet Pallazzo pants,and my first cocktail dress, a Leo Narducci, in empyrean blue, backless, with a 5 inch belt studded with different sized rhinestones, all winking up at you like shooting stars.

Ray Frensham said...

Classic photo!

In a strange way I am reminded of a tee-shirt they had in the 1970s (I remember Art Garfunkel wearing one), a tee-shirt with the pattern of a tuxedo, carnation, white dress shirt and black bow tie design on the front.