G. Bruce Boyer, former fashion editor at Town & Country and the author of a history of menswear, makes a significant contribution to that conversation in the June issue of First Things. His general point is not entirely new. It is the one with which Joseph Epstein launched his still-relevant 2004 Weekly Standard essay, "The Perpetual Adolescent."
Boyer echoes this observation, using back issues of Life magazine rather than newsreels as our documentation of the assumptions of that era.
WHENEVER ANYONE under the age of 50 sees old newsreel film of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak of 1941, he is almost certain to be brought up by the fact that nearly everyone in the male-dominated crowds--in New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland--seems to be wearing a suit and a fedora or other serious adult hat. The people in those earlier baseball crowds, though watching a boyish game, nonetheless had a radically different conception of themselves than most Americans do now. A major depression was ending, a world war was on. Even though they were watching an entertainment that took most of them back to their boyhoods, they thought of themselves as adults, no longer kids, but grown-ups, adults, men.
How different from today, when a good part of the crowd at any ballgame, no matter what the age, is wearing jeans and team caps and T-shirts; and let us not neglect those (one hopes) benign maniacs who paint their faces in home-team colors or spell out, on their bare chests, the letters of the names of star players: S-O-S-A. Part of the explanation for the suits at the ballpark in DiMaggio's day is that in the 1940s and even '50s there weren't a lot of sport, or leisure, or casual clothes around. Unless one lived at what H.L. Mencken called "the country-club stage of culture"--unless, that is, one golfed, played tennis, or sailed--one was likely to own only the clothes one worked in or better. Far from casual Fridays, in those years there weren't even casual Sundays. Wearing one's "Sunday best," a cliché of the time, meant wearing the good clothes one reserved for church.
A little further up in his essay, he uses clothing to make clear the dichotomy between one's formal, public self and one's private self:
For quite a few years now, academic philosophers and sociologists, as well as popular social commentators who get paid to pronounce on such matters, have been telling us that people have been abandoning their formal personas in favor of the whims and behavior of their individual selves. The point of all the ink seems to be that public ritual behavior has given way to personal freedom, and that while we all used to have two personas, a public one and a private one, we now only have a private one which has gone public. Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man appeared in 1977, followed by Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, and then the deluge. The publishing climax may well have come in 2000 with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, in which Putnam argued that individuals were increasingly disconnected from one another and social structures.
While not putting an emphasis on dress itself, most commentators who have discussed the relationship between the public and private person have made reference to both dress and manners when discussing the abandonment of the formal public self. And perhaps nowhere can the loss of public self be so readily seen as in the clothes we wear. One commentator remarked, “A ‘gentleman’ no longer tipped his symbolic hat to a ‘lady’ to show the conventional respect due her sex; he no longer had a hat to tip.” And no one doubts that the hat is gone, as well as the suit, the tie, and the polished leather oxford. The word I’m searching for is casualization. There’s been, in the past couple of decades, a Great Casualization of the business wardrobe. The suits and white dress shirts and discreet ties that most businessmen wore for a hundred years and more started to disappear after the 1970s. When this casual business trend began in earnest in the following decade, fashion writers started referring to it as “the third wardrobe”—an alternative to both the tailored business clothes and athletic-inspired clothing that had traditionally comprised a man’s wardrobe for much of the twentieth century. Today, traditionally tailored clothing—suits, sports coats, and their accompanying accessories—might legitimately be considered the third wardrobe, a luxury wardrobe worn for dressy occasions by many, and daily by those in positions of real power in society.His subsequent fleshing out of his point takes the reader into some areas of cultural unfolding that have been under-considered. He devotes a fair amount of space to the implications of the G.I Bill for the evolution of Americans' notions about formal dress. Democratization was working inland from the coasts, particularly the east coast.
The sons of steelworkers, mill hands, teachers, clerks, and farmers could go to college, start a business, buy a small house and car. A telling indication of this new prosperity could easily be seen by looking at what young people wore. Ivy League clothes—the soft-shouldered, buttoned-down, saddle-shoed, gray flannel wardrobe—were by 1950 not limited to the Eastern establishment elite who had owned the style and worn the clothes for more than half a century, but were adopted by youth from Boston to Brownsville to every land grant college in the Midwest. The Ivy look—the Eastern establishment elite look writ large—became a symbol of the new prosperity.The next set of developments he traces is fascinating. For instance, he sees the outfit Miles Davis wore onstage at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival as a major cultural bellwether:
. . . Davis stepped onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival wearing a seersucker jacket and club-collar shirt purchased at Charlie Davidson’s Andover Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and set a trend for the look of jazz musicians for the next decade and beyond.Interest in trends coming from Britain and Italy also helped take men's formalwear in the direction of lighter fabrics and cuts more accommodating to the movements of ambitious and energetic young achievers.
I do kind of wish he hadn't jumped so abruptly to the startling revolution in sensibilities wrought by the 1967 Summer of Love and the 1969 Woodstock festival. There is, it seems to me, some groundwork to be laid so as to make that countercultural burst more understandable.
In fact, one really needs to back up and examine unfavorable takes on this whole notion of a public self from hundreds of years ago. The argument that these customs and conventions are merely a pretense, a mask for the animal passions and thirst for raw power that drive human beings everywhere, has a long pedigree. Voltaire’s Candide in the eighteenth century, the Dada and Surrealist art movements of the early twentieth century, mid-century phenomena such as beat literature, Lenny Bruce’s revolutionizing of standup comedy, and the camp sensibility, and the various forms of identity politics that continue to morph to this day constitute a cursory timeline of mockery of the notion that there is anything more to refinement than artifice.
Consider the momentum though, with which the deterioration of a basic body of commonly regarded etiquette, customs, standards for language and dress, and expectations that art will in some way, even when dealing with terrible subject matter, be beautiful has proceeded.
Vulgar language began to appear in mainstream movies circa 1969 or 1970. It followed the appearance thereof in recorded music by perhaps a couple of years. The basis for its introduction into these realms was the argument that since everybody mutters such words and phrases in private, there’s something dishonest about banning it from the public sphere, that so banning somehow actually makes our discourse less rich and productive.
Boyer does make mention of the introduction of the work shirt into the American make wardrobe, as well as the increase in the prevalence of denim that continues to this day. He could, however, have bolstered his case by more overtly ascribing the rise to the romanticizing of the proletariat sensibility. The division between suits on the one hand and jeans and work shirts on the other even played itself out on rally stages where it was one way for young New Left adherents to get in the faces of their Congress for Industrial Democracy elders. Then, of course, there was the inestimable impact of the figure Bob Dylan cut in his folk-purist phase.
Boyer then takes us through the intervening decades between the great 1960s upheaval and today, during which upper management at America's large corporations, sensing the irreversibility of this new relaxing, introduced Casual Fridays, which didn't take long to become loosened codes for every day of the week.
His concluding insight is worth pondering. We no longer have attire available as a means for getting a bead on where someone has been:
Clothes have always provided the most obvious indication of both dignity and definition. There was no question in anyone’s mind when Louis XIV walked into the room who was king. His yards of ermine and gold cloth made it easy. But today we see a man walking in midtown Manhattan wearing a pair of jeans, denim shirt and jacket, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots and have no idea what he may be. He may of course be a cowboy, but on 34th Street? All we are given to know is that he wants to be thought a cowboy. At least for today.The emphasis is mine. this is a hugely important point. Having jettisoned the notion of a public self, we grant everyone infinite leeway for self-invention.
I touched upon this phenomenon in a post here last month about tattoos, entitled "Self-Adornment, Taste and the Tension Between Individual Sovereignty and Cultural Health."
I'd like to offer the possibility that its look-at-me factor feeds a sense of self-importance, of a neurotic yearning for autonomy that is one of the chief signs of post-American society's rapidly declining health. It feeds this notion that everything about our daily lives ought to bear our signature, that everything must reflect personal style. Compose your own playlist to pump through your earbuds. Festoon your car with bumper stickers - maybe even a license plate - that trumpet to the world what you care about, or what reviles you. Get your coffee, your pizza, your salad dressing, exactly like you want it. (Let's see if I can remember all the varieties of ranch dressing I saw when I was shopping for the original kind the other day: bacon, avocado, cucumber, buttermilk, lite, fat-free . . . I'm forgetting some, but you get my point.)If the whole point of abandoning stiff fabric and a narrowly proscribed range of permissible personal flourishes in favor of that which is loose and flexible was to elevate authenticity to a place of primacy among our cultural values, it's richly ironic, is it not, that many use this leeway to cloak their supposedly authentic selves in what amount to costumes, and the rest choose to appear among their fellow citizens in such a minimalist fashion that there seems to be no self about which to be authentic.