Good god, fella, get a closet!
You just want to scream. You’re in your spiffs at a fine event, feeling good about looking good, and in lumbers a disheveled oaf in ill-fitting denim and a partly tucked golf shirt. You look around, and — as is too often the case — he’s not alone.
In church, Christmas Eve, folks bedecked in what back in the day we called “for good” clothes — they’re there, too, one in a shabby shirt, another in beltless jeans. You’ve seen them at high school concerts and, of all places, funerals. You’ve seen the tank tops and flip-flops at nice restaurants.
Pricey jeans purposely made tattered with frayed holes are said to be fashionable, but Mom never let her kids go to school dressed like that.
Those off to a job interview wear decent duds, knowing there’s but one chance to make a good first impression. But what about all the impressions that follow?
Geez, how did the rumpled look take over America’s wardrobes, anyway? When did it become OK to leave the house almost always looking like you’re heading out to clean the garage?
Some, mostly guys, say they don’t care what others think. Women tend to dress better because women dress for other women, who — a wise someone once said — are more alert to and appreciate appearance.
So, what does America’s dress-down ethic say about us?
For starters, fashion pros agree that you really are what you wear — that dress is a measure of your respect for others, and yourself.
Karen Pine, a fashion psychologist in London and author of “Mind What You Wear,” says dress affects your outlook on life and even how productive you are. Happy, snappy dressers, it seems, are go-to folks for any project.
But there’s more to it, according to Judith Rasband, an image consultant who says that one’s dress relates to how one views most everything. If you don’t care about your dress, you’re likely to turn inward and just plain care less. Whatever problems your community and nation face are someone else’s to solve.
Rasband, CEO of Conselle Institute Image Management in Provo, Utah, insists that the dress-down philosophy is not just symptomatic of some worrisome aspects of social decline, but central to it.
Some say the descent to dress-down started in the 1960s as hippies built their counterculture in tie-dyes and flaxen-waxen hair. There surely was a many-faceted wrenching of the social and political order in those days, but the current era’s casual drift started in Seattle when dot.com upstarts needed legions of techies who, like Bill Gates, were into unkempt. Their laid-back “uniform” infested IT cubicles as offices were hard-wired to a complicated new technology, making the grunge set respectably valuable to any operation.
Spying an enlarged market for denim, Levi Strauss promoted “Casual Friday,” which produced workplace notices warning end-of-the-week visitors that they might encounter jeans and Ts. Employees somehow saw it as a liberating “benefit.” Dressing up was out, dressing down was in, and before long every day became casual.
Nate’s Clothing in Minneapolis closed in 2008 after a 92-year run, just as small men’s shops were shuttered on Main Streets everywhere. Nate’s, like so many others, was about making guys on the rise look successful to be successful. But take a midday stroll today through downtown skyways and you’d think many were headed somewhere to grub weeds.
But much more has been going on through the dress-down period, and this is where Rasband sees things as getting interesting, if not depressing.
While the tumult of the 1960s turned many young Americans toward social activism, the period from the 1980s onward saw a collective tune-out. Interest in issues of the day, or most anything, sagged along with the jeans people wore over untied sneakers.
“The casualization of America,” Rasband says, “is about the general decline of civility.”
The ever-worsening malaise in Washington gnaws into our psyche through the 24-hour cable news cycle. Trust in the media, Congress, state legislatures, the FBI and other institutions critical to democracy have taken major hits. More and more of us get our information from social media, often a cauldron of toxic name-calling, bizarre conspiracy theories and ding-dong “truth” that slips through porous filters of common sense.
Schools are dropping “civics” classes that teach how government works and the responsibility of citizenship. There’s waning interest in liberal arts and even basic geography. (Asked to name states bordering Minnesota, a college student reportedly came up with “North Dakota, Milwaukee and Chicago … .”)
So, what does this have to do with clothing?
Rasband says appearance massages the mind: The dapper tend to be uplifting and engaged, while the sloppy tend to be less respectful, less caring, less interested, less interesting.
“Today’s kids read up and down, not left to right,” she says, “They often fail to see cause and effect, and they miss life’s important context.” Even writing cursive is an endangered art, depriving words of gentle elegance. Handwriting in any form has given way to text messaging with its corrupted grammar, truncated words and tangled thoughts in mangled sentences.
And all that, Rasband says, has its parallel in slovenly jeans and Ts, the uniform of indifference toward education generally, and of not giving a rip about how society and its governments work. The fall-off in citizen participation breeds feelings of irrelevance and withdrawal, eventually leading to ceding power to organized moneyed interests.
“What if schools were fully funded,” a poster read, “and stadiums relied on bake sales?”
Try this one: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” If you know who said it or are eager to find out, you pass. If you don’t give a flying fig, check a nearby mirror and see whether you’re helping make Rasband’s point.
Informed citizens care about community and government enough to follow what’s going on and to work to make things better rather than sitting around grousing. Did you attend your precinct caucus, or did you while away the evening (in sweats) playing games on the handheld? If you think that things like caucuses and local elections aren’t important, it’s little wonder that the Economist Intelligence Unit finds the health of America’s democracy has slipped to 21st in world rankings (we’re now a “flawed democracy”), due mostly to deeply divided politics and lack of public participation in governance (we trail Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and much of Western Europe).
You may be smugly satisfied that you’ve done your duty by standing and applauding uniformed soldiers. Anyone in public service deserves praise, of course, but make no mistake: A fully engaged citizenry is essential to protecting America’s constitutional freedoms. Live ammo and missiles are for when all else fails — at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Whether the drift to decadence starts with how people dress is at least worthy of discussion. Rasband insists that “casual” dress has hastened an uncaring, uncivil America. The unending gridlock in government — whose leaders are, after-all, elected by “us” and not only by “them” — is mirrored in divisive and senseless digital posts. We don’t talk politics at gatherings anymore because we simply don’t know how without starting a feud.
And as Rasband titled a recent essay: “America is going down the tube in a T-shirt.”
Ron Way lives in Edina and owns one pair of jeans for yardwork.