by Judith Rasband
Since 1960 and the onset of anti-establishment attitudes, standards of dress have declined. Not only has dress for traditional roles and occasions become increasingly casual, but jeans, T-shirts, and sweats lead the fashion trend list.
Visit any movie theater or mall and you’ll see people wearing more T-shirts and jeans or sweats than any other type of apparel. Try people-watching at fast-food and mid-level restaurants, airports, and public schools. You’ll see the T-shirt as the most common piece of clothing.
Check out business offices—particularly those with the Casual Friday dress-down day that has eroded to include the entire work week. The concept of casual business wear has degenerated to jeans and T-shirts in many business locations, including upscale corporate offices.
With a wide range of affordable, attractive, and comfortable clothing choices available, Americans’ choice of dress has descended to the level of T-shirt and jeans or sweats. Americans now own more T-shirts and jeans than ever before.
According to a national survey sponsored by the VF Corporation, the average individual owns seven pair of jeans — one third of respondents own ten pair or more! (Source: Fashion News Letter, March 1996.)
Levi Strauss and Company has called the casual dress movement “the most significant apparel trend of the century.” What is most notable, however, is that decline in standards of dress goes hand in hand with cultural decline, manifested in productivity and participation, personal identity, manners, and ultimately, morals—with casual dress being both cause and symptom. In short, America is going down the tube in a T-shirt!
By productivity and participation, I refer to personal effort and output. Personal identity means individuality, personality, character, and independence of thought. For centuries, including the present one, manners has meant common social courtesies and traditional standards of etiquette. By morals, I mean self-control, respect, and discipline—social and sexual.
Productivity and Participation
It was estimated that byy the year 2000, it is estimated that half of all U.S. companies would permit employees to dress down every day, on the premise that casual dress improves morale. It happened however, as standards of dress decline, productivity in all types of work may also and ultimately decline. Change in dress, or change in any factor, sparks productivity initially and for a time. Ultimately, however, the newness of change wears off and productivity retreats to previous levels or, more often, declines. New research is needed within the business sector to study productivity at varying degrees of casual dress.
Casual dress at all levels in business puts employer, management, and employees on an equal plane. But is that really wise? Think about our schools. Teachers were among the first professionals to dress down—long before we even heard of corporate Casual Friday. With teachers looking more like students, discipline has declined along with SAT scores. A revealing study by the College Board shows a drop of almost 80 points in SAT scores between 1960 and 1990. During the same period, the FBI documented a 560 percent increase in violent crime, with the greatest increase among teens.
In 1969, 34 percent of high-school students admitted cheating on tests. The number doubled by 1989. In a survey of 3100 top students conducted by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, 78 percent admitted having cheated. It’s a way of life (Source: Reader’s Digest, “Cheating in Our Schools: A National Scandal,” Daniel R. Levine, October 1995).
Decline in production and participation is especially noticeable with the change to casual clothing, wherein the individual’s quest for comfort gradually overrides the effort required to produce or participate. Continually dressed in casual clothing, the wearer settles or sinks into a comfort level that inhibits, discourages, or represses effort or participation of any kind—including the ability to get up, go anywhere, or do anything—the stereotypical couch potato. If these individuals do venture out and find themselves with others more refined or original in dress, they feel psychologically uncomfortable and hence limit or even eliminate further association and participation.
Consequently, we are losing many fine restaurants, theater and symphony productions, museums, and other establishments requiring some serious thought and refinement—often reflected by fine dress. In their place we find an overabundance of fast-food chains, video arcades, and shoddy backstreet theaters presenting low-quality or questionable musical and theatrical performances.
Unless we’re willing to give up economic growth, or to lose more of those finer things in life, it’s time for an upgrade in dress—a revamping. And, as previously indicated, this is not the sole concern.
Dressed in the androgynous look of T-shirt and jeans, we all look alike. When we look alike, we begin to feel and act alike. We lose variety, individuality, and personal style. Many become dependent on looking like everyone else–unable to cope with the thought of standing out in a crowd.
Others, in reverse effort to stand out or identify with a particular attitude or group, dress in a T-shirt with slogan or logo printed on the front or back. They are, in turn, identified by others with the slogan or logo. Thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions are stimulated simply by the printing on the shirt. Teens wearing a famous face on the front of their T-shirt tend to identify with that person or perceived personality. Many fail to fully develop their own personality and character. Identity and feelings of personal worth are tied to a T-shirt.
People who wear only T-shirts and jeans or sweats limit the range of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that a variety of clothes can stimulate, project, or reflect. Facets of personality and potential are never discovered nor developed. It appears that when people stop dressing for different occasions, they gradually stop doing and going—there never are any special occasions.
People used to want to “dress up,” to be special. Wearing casual clothing every day, however, people never look special. They never feel special. They are always the same. They never rise above the everyday, the ordinary. And so they become ordinary, common, even mediocre. Could this crumbling of self-esteem somehow be related to the more than 200 percent increase in teenage suicide in the last 30 years (Source: National Center for Health Statistics)? Perhaps this disturbing statistic deserves more than a passing glance or an offhand comment.
Because people still experience the need to feel special–notwithstanding their words and actions to the contrary—we see women wearing T-shirts and sweatshirts embellished with brightly colored paint, beads, jewels, and whatever else signals “special” to them. Further demonstrating the need to feel “special,” we see big-city teens and young adults, bored with the relentless wearing of T-shirts and jeans every day of the week, resorting to flamboyant costume dress for evening parties and late-night clubs. Cross-dressing among the Club Kids is also common, and with it personal identity takes a serious and ugly plunge.
We are losing our creativity and general ability to dress well. “Parisians assume not merely that Americans dress badly, but that they don’t even know the difference” (Source: “Have We Become a Nation of Slobs?” by Jerry Addler, Newsweek, February 20, 1995, p. 58). Putting forth no thought or effort in the art of dress (visual design), we gradually lose the ability to combine or coordinate clothing or create attractive and versatile outfits. Hence, we acquire our unenviable collective identity—the ugly American, in Ameri-wear.
Demanding to wear only what is “easy,” we lose the ability to coordinate what is comparatively harder. We don’t, can’t, and then won’t rise above the level of T-shirts and jeans—where anything goes. Fashion or wardrobe skills and creativity are lost and gradually devalued to make those without skills and creativity feel better than those who do.
When personal identity is placed in jeopardy, when it is weakened or pursues grim deviations, those guidelines, standards, and principles that form the framework for our interactions with others—in short, manners—are also jeopardized.
We live in a time distinguished by the general “casualization” of America—a cultural trend toward greater informality and greater, though more thoughtless, unrestrained, expression of self. Dress reflects this societal trend. So do manners or social courtesies and standards of etiquette. The desire for informality and comfort in clothing often overrules any sense of propriety, decorum, dignity, or nobility. In casual dress, manners relax and fewer courtesies are extended to others. One does not hesitate to give a swat on the seat to someone wearing jeans—but a swat on the seat of a suit- or skirt-wearer? Not likely!
By continually wearing casual clothes, even grubby T-shirts and jeans, people are saying “no” to anything that requires effort, respect, self-motivation, or self control. Being well mannered and courteous to others demands all of the above, and people are saying “no” to manners as well. Bureau of the Census records from 1960 to 1990 reveal a dismaying result of this incessant “no”—a quadrupling in the divorce rate and percentage of children on welfare. Interestingly, divorce often begins when kindness, respect, and self-control end. In the extreme, we read and hear of shootings on streets and freeways due to uncontrolled anger incited by someone who supposedly “cut in” or passed without consent.
In the years before 1960, families ate meals together, and children received daily training in good manners. Perhaps you remember some parental admonitions: Wait for everyone else before you start eating. Don’t slurp your soup. Don’t talk with your mouth full. In the following decades a large majority of families gradually relaxed or relented, adopting a casual, fend-for-yourself approach to meals. Today it’s called “grazing,” and parents are assuming a nonchalant attitude about, and even saying no to family mealtimes—more of the casualization of America.
Wearing jeans or shorts and T-shirts, young people of the 70s, 80s, and 90s have grown up relatively unsocialized. “The ‘me’ generation has bad manners,” says etiquette authority Amy Willard Cross. “We need a manners makeover.” Many of the actions of the “me” generation are unsettling, even crass, their vocabulary questionable and objectionable, their attitudes indifferent, their direction haphazard. During the 80s, Jerry Lyons, then vice-president for administration for Cherry Textron, affirmed, “We’re seeing an appalling lack of simple good manners in our younger management employees.”
This loss of manners has spawned a myriad of etiquette books and corporate-sponsored classes in manners. Companies–such as Dean Witter Reynolds, Texaco, Union Carbide, Mobil Oil, United Airlines, Citicorp., and Data General—that hire etiquette consultants to train their employees have identified issues and behaviors considered bothersome. Complaints tend to focus on abusive or crude language, poor restaurant habits, and boorish office manners.
Interestingly, the generation with bad manners is the first generation to wear ripped jeans and T-shirts in high school, and the same generation now pushing for casual clothes in the workplace. We can be sure that corporate Casual Friday, carried through the entire work week, will lead to more lackadaisical expectations, more accidental situations, more apathetic carry-through, and more careless actions. Manners and standards of etiquette, in the face of such adversity, can be expected to continue to wither.
Once manners begin their descent, morals cannot be far behind, for they are both threads from the same fabric of our lives and our very society.
The cultural decline in morals, as in manners, also relates to the casualization of America and the cultural trend toward greater informality and expression of feeling. It too is reflected in casual dress. Jeans and T-shirts accompanied the sexual revolution of the 60s, gaining fashion status in the 70s and 80s. Today, jeans are blatantly promoted in advertising in a most lewd manner. They have, in fact, become a national sex symbol. Dressed in jeans, especially snug jeans, the wearer somehow becomes sexy, or sexier. We see form-fitting jeans and a T-shirt on a bra-less female figure provocatively positioned.
We see unzipped jeans on a topless male figure, positioned equally provocatively. We see his hands inside the waistband of her jeans, an insidious invitation to relax, do whatever you feel like doing, and enjoy yourself. But there are consequences to such attitudes and actions, and they cannot be ignored. Between 1960 and 1990, a 419 percent increase in illegitimate births occurred—an absolute abandonment of sexual restraint and respect, in essence, of morals (Source: National Center for Health Statistics).
The progressive erosion—the decay—of morals in society is like the wear and tear on an old pair of jeans. The threads just barely holding together the inevitable hole in the knee become weaker day by day. Very minute particles gradually fray, loosen from the threads, and are sloughed off. Ultimately, the worn and ineffective threads break, sometimes in a single, culminating act.
Ancient Rome fought a valiant fight against the extinction of its civilization, but the one enemy over which its mighty armies and brilliant minds were powerless was its own moral and cultural decay. It came upon the people slowly, steadily, and subtly until it ensnared them and ultimately slaughtered them. America would be wise to shake off its indifference and rise to action, for we still have time to crush that moral parasite insinuating its way among us.
Not only do we have the benefit of hindsight to remind us of loathsome possibilities, but we also have knowledge, financial and physical resources, skilled individuals whose expertise can guide us, and, surely among our hundreds of millions of citizens, enough individuals who desire a return to the safety of a moral society. Yes, Rome went down the tube in a toga, but we have the power to prevent America from following in a T-shirt.
On occasion, a T-shirt and jeans are exactly right. At the beach, in the mountains, after work, in the yard, on the weekend, okay—get casual. Rough it, relax, regroup, get ready for the next day or the next week. Spend all day, everyday, wearing T-shirt and jeans or sweats, however, and you risk experiencing the negative halo effect—look sloppy, think sloppy, feel sloppy, act sloppy, be sloppy.
The continual wearing of casual clothing has contributed to the cultural decline or lowering of standards in general and will predictably lead to changed expectations. In particular, as people no longer feel the need to look nice, act nice, or be nice, they will have no desire to live at a higher standard. It is simply easier to let down, or sink down, to a lower standard.
Standards in productivity, personal identity, manners, and morals are retrogressing, and dress is part of the problem. Constant casual dress is not a passing fancy nor a harmless fad. It is a significant trend toward negative uniform dress that is here to stay unless something is done to counter or reverse it.
The problematic regression of the past three decades is due in large part to the weakened state of our generations-old social institutions—the family, school, church, community agencies, and so on—and their decreased abilities to carry out their essential and time-honored tasks. Through these same institutions we seriously need to regain recognition of the influence that clothing has on self and others.
Common Sense Solution
When was the last time you got “dressed up” in something you really like. Think back on where you went and how terrific you felt. Did you step out on the town, visit friends, or go to a movie or a meeting with more than your usual enthusiasm and self-confidence? Were you pleased with the way you looked and felt? Did you stand a little taller? Did you speak with others a little more often or longer? If so, then your sense of self was getting some healthy exercise. Why should that experience be relegated to just a few times a year—if ever?
But, you say, getting dressed up is something you do only when you have to because it’s uncomfortable, expensive, time consuming, or not really you. Nonsense. Dressing up doesn’t mean giving up comfort or personal style. Common sense says that comfortable knits and softer fabrics are fine. Clothes that don’t have to be ironed are okay, too. You don’t have to sacrifice your values or your time for fashion or style.
There are many degrees of dressing up. For some, it may mean no more than a pressed sport shirt and twill pants. For others, it may include a sportcoat or sweater, knit polo shirt, and slacks. Even a polo shirt works better than a T-shirt—and the key is often the collar. In the workplace, traditionally white collar or blue, a shirt with a collar will communicate to self and others more ability, credibility, and character than a T-shirt ever can. It works in the home, the school, and community as well.
Take a look around you—in the restaurant, movies, or mall. Is everyone dressed in a uniform T-shirt and jeans or sweats? If so, does that mean you too should conform? Be a trendsetter. Dare to dress with care and a little coordination or creativity. Take joy and a healthy dose of pride in how terrific you can look.
The American population is suffering from conformity and confusion or misunderstanding about clothes. For generations, people have been caught between conflicting ideas; on the one side, that they must wear the latest style and brand to be accepted and of value; on the other side, that attention to image, clothing, or fashion is frivolous, artificial, vain, superficial gloss, and without redeeming value. People pretend that clothing has no symbolic significance, that it doesn’t influence them, that it’s not important and doesn’t matter.
In reality, it is the latest style and fashionable brand that lack value. You don’t have to be a slave to fashion. Consumers are less fashion conscious than they used to be. That’s great. But don’t go to extreme—don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!
The way we look, the way we care for and carry ourselves, our personal style, posture, and presence—these are all part of who we are. Clothing reflects who we are as well as our values, attitudes, interests, roles, and often our goals. It influences what we think, how we feel, how we act, and how others react or respond to us.
Dressing to accommodate and reflect the individual “me”—or me of the moment–is an effective way to nurture and assist in the development of the person striving for self-actualization or personal fulfillment. This is an exciting process—creativity combined with common sense, fact, and function, mixed with fashion and fun. Why not? It works!
Some people would have us believe that good taste and style in dress can’t be learned. You’re born with or without it—the latter making fashion a threat to many people. This belief is not only arrogant but untrue. We can learn, develop, and cultivate an attractive appearance, good taste, and personal style that goes beyond T-shirts and jeans or sweats.
Walter K. Levy, chairman and principal of Walter K. Levy and Robert E. Kerson Associates Inc., refers to “a lessening taste gap between mass and class.” The masses are not learning about dress. Education is the key to any kind of appearance or fashion revival—in the home, school, church, business, and retail setting—through classes, printed materials, and ad campaigns.
We seriously need to educate people to the fact that there’s an infinite variety of clothes to choose from, in a wide range between casual and dressy, tailored and untailored. Each individual can learn to choose the degree of casualness and dressiness appropriate for differing occasions, professions, lifestyles, and personal styles. Each individual can learn how to select and make decisions about clothes in ways that work very personally.
Consider that when you give some thought and effort to dressing in a variety of ways for a variety of moods and occasions, you become more individual, creative, confident, and competent. Within the time available, you become more involved with more people, in more places, and in more pursuits. Life becomes more interesting. Productivity increases. You are more likely to become self-actualized and to accomplish satisfying goals.
Special Interest to Fashion Professionals
Directly related to the decline in dress is loss of jobs within the fashion industry. At it’s peak, in 1950, there were 350,000 jobs filled. Today there are only 77,000, with the industry still shrinking. (Source: Fashion News Letter, March 1996.) Women’s Wear Daily reports the fashion industry has yet again lost jobs, 18,000 in 1995 compared to the same time the previous year.
The fashion industry depends on retail sales. Sales figures for clothing and accessories show little growth in the industry over the past six years, 1990 to 1996, and retailers see no end to the current down trend (Source: Margaret Webb Pressler, “From Riches to Rags,” Washington Post). American men bought only 13 million suits in 1994. That’s down by 1.6 million since 1989 (Source: NPD Research, Inc., RTW Review, February/March 1995). This is not a little slump. It spells a permanent change in the retail climate. Companies are downsizing. Malls are closing. Fashion retailing is dying! And with fashion retailing goes the entire fashion industry–formerly the fifth largest industry in America.
Catering to public demand for no-thought, no-effort, casual, relaxed clothes only speeds the industry down a very predictable path—eliminating the need for nice clothes and ultimately eliminating a whole market. Tommy Hilfiger stock may have climbed 18 percent, but what happened to Hart, Schaftner & Marx. With no one wearing nice clothes, no one will buy nice clothes. Soon, no one will manufacture nice clothes, and then there’s no point in designing them. So, why bother with nice fabrics? Jobs are lost and people suffer. It’s happening.