I’ve been thinking about the power of clothing.

I do this a lot because I am both a) rather strangely obsessed with historical clothing and b) profoundly dissatisfied with how we dress in modern times.  Look around you – almost nobody looks spiffy.  Rather, nearly everyone looks like they thought they would be spending the day lolling about on the floor of a college dorm room ( even the 50 year old executives on the metro on “casual Friday”) or like they’ve been under the weather so they never quite got out of their sweats.

My son at 6 in a suit modeled on one owned by the Duc d'Anjou and made with fabric remnants from the Vatican

It used to be that clothes reflected a person’s status.  Sumptuary laws made certain that only those at the top of the pecking order were allowed to wear certain materials.  You knew a king when you saw one.  I am not advocating a return to class-distinction by wardrobe.  By no means.  But who would have predicted when dress was democratized that a race to the bottom would begin?  Yet today, after hundreds of years during which tradesmen and later the middle class tried to dress up a socio-economic level (or two),  people willingly leave their homes in such a slovenly state that, but for their hygiene and the fact they have their teeth, they could pass for peasants.

All this “casual” dress is done in the name of comfort, but there is no reason in the world why nice, properly pressed clothing can’t be comfortable.  And if it is not as comfortable as just throwing on any old rumpled thing, isn’t personal pride worth a modicum of sacrifice?

Yesterday over at Steampunk.com there was a discussion of the 2013 Prada Fall/Winter line.  They were, of course, interested in the steampunkiness of the collection but I saw lots of historical references in the garments.  I was struck by just how good the models all looked—even Willem Dafoe who has looked slightly seedy and decrepit for years.  They look powerful, confident, sharp and generally more attractive then when you see them in modern clothing (go ahead, Google Gary Oldman and compare an image of him in street clothing to those of him in the Prada).  This confirmed something I’ve suspected for a long time—almost everyone looks better “dressed-up” (as in properly, neatly and relatively formally attired).

If you want further proof compare pictures from people in your own life  when they look “thrown together” with those where they are “sharply dressed.”  I mean there is a reason we tend to put on more formal clothing for auspicious occasions—we want to look our best.  You didn’t wear flip flops, sweats and a tee-shirt for your wedding right? (please, PLEASE tell me you didn’t).  To illustrate my point, here are two pictures of the same young man (a daughter’s boyfriend).  In the first he is dressed in typical college wear, in the other in a vintage bespoke 1939 tailcoat.  Not close is it?


I concede (though it gives me no pleasure) that the days of dressing for dinner are past, and that going back to styles which require the assistance of a valet or ladies maid is out of the question.  But surely it is not too late to bring back pride in personal appearance and the idea that different clothing is appropriate for different settings (work vs. cutting your lawn)?

Maybe what we really need is this fellow.  Is he rude in this sketch—yes.  Is it meant to be funny—of course.  But have we all seen people dressed like this and thought they were “a turd”—I sure have.

8 Responses to “Clothing Makes the Man (or Woman) – A Plea for a Return to A More Civilized Dress Code”

  1. I completely agree. I have a sister who consistently shows up to family occasions (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.) in extremely casual clothing (once she even wore a torn shirt!) and her sons all wear sweats/sport clothes. Everyone else wears something nice, but my sister never seems to notice. Drives me CRAZY!

    • I’ve been to a couple such family events myself. Even ruined a lovely pair of peau de soie shoes at a wedding reception that — without any advance warning to the guests — ended up moving outside to a very muddy location.

      At my house if you wear sweats you don’t eat, lol. And not just for holidays either 😉

  2. Interesting post – however I disagree totally. I have long thought that it was time we banish dress codes altogether. I am not sure who benefits from them? If you want to dress up for any given occasion, then so be it, whatever makes you feel most comfortable.

    As far as I’m concerned you should wear whatever works for you. I am not married, but I have already struck a deal with my girlfriend that if it comes to it that I can wear jeans at the ceremony, the last thing I want is to feel uncomfortable at my own wedding.

    I think worst of all is restaurants imposing a dress code. If I’m coming to your restaurant and paying over £100 a head I should at the very least be able to wear what I want. If you tell me I have to wear a jacket and tie and no jeans – who does that help? It makes me feel uncomfortable. If it bothers the other people around me, then I think they need to get their priorities straight. If their pleasure is impeded by my choice to wear jeans something is very wrong.

    The only time I will concede it is fair is if someone is inviting me to their wedding, as their guest at their expense. Otherwise it’s jeans, and no jacket all the way for me, and if you want to wear a beautiful tailored 3 piece suit then that’s great for you!

    • Well of course opinions vary. I will venture to guess, however, that you have never owned a perfectly tailored suit. I assure you properly fitted clothing of any degree of formality is entirely comfortable. You simply need a tuxedo that is as comfortable as your jeans.

      • I’m not sure of the definition of “perfectly tailored”. It is true I have not had anything tailor made for me. But I do have a lovely Paul Smith suit that is off the hanger and adjusted for me if that counts!

        However that argument is slightly academic as I refer to comfort in respect of what I feel comfortable in, not necessarily the fitting. I feel more comfortable wearing badly tailored jeans, than a wonderfully tailored suit.

  3. I think the issue is that in the olden days people used to dress for others’ comfort, but nowadays people only dress for their own. It may be more comfortable for ME to wear some falling apart jeans with a baggy T-shirt, or even my pajama pants and a tank with no bra, but it is definitely more comfortable for OTHERS to see me in a put together outfit. If you are unselfish enough to care about other people, you will dress for their comfort, not just your own.

    • Rosanne —

      I’d never thought of it in those terms but I suspect you are right. After all there has been a general reduction in the amount of “duty” people feel (let alone act upon) on all fronts. Duty used to be prized and sexy (I still think it is) but now it is considered quaint and outmoded in many circles.

      Thinking about your comment, it IS the “man as an island” mentality and self-centeredness masquerading at “personal expression” of all this dressing down that really stick in my craw. As if satisfying personal comfort and personal preference were the two highest callings in the universe.

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