August 14, 2007

Clothing and class

Over at GNXP, I wrote a brief guide to cleaning up your nerdy appearance, emphasizing professionalism and making the place look nice, more than looking hot to get girls (though that's a good reason too). One thing I should've mentioned, but which was beside the main point there, is that it's a mistake to believe that putting more effort into our dress is bad because it might stoke class tensions, so why don't we all dress really down and be happy in our equality.

On the contrary, the downward spiral of casualness only increases the variance -- or as it's fashionable to say, it exacerbates the gap between the rich and poor. When even those at the bottom rungs of the white collar ladder dress more formally, and when (for example) waiters and waitresses are provided with stunning formal uniforms by their employers, both public and even private life has a much more polished look. Differences remain, but the contrast between a low-level white collar guy and a CEO is not night-and-day.

Once the more formal standards are abandoned, the very richest retain their impeccable attire -- Wall St. bankers will never adopt cargo shorts and polo shirts for work -- while everyone else tumbles into slobdom. The middle falls out, and now the differences between a CEO and an office worker look like something out of a muckraking cartoon from the Robber Baron era. Except, as Donald from 2blowhards pointed out, it is voluntary nowadays to look unkempt. As such, it could easily change if the will were there.

And when people are not in their "work-gear," these differences become downright embarrassing. The discrepancy between the suit of a low-level white collar worker and that of a CEO is noticeable, but it takes some investigation, and many naive people could be forgiven if they didn't see much of a contrast in the first place. However, look at the Wall St. banker in his t-shirt and jeans next to an office assistant in his t-shirt and jeans. Unlike a jacket and tie, the t-shirt and jeans look is pretty difficult to make look impressive. You could easily be mistaken for an unemployed or homeless person, but not so with a jacket and tie.

Sporty looks can be done right -- for a hefty price. While a jacket and tie from a low-level department store at least stands a fighting chance as a replacement for a $2000 suit, t-shirt and jeans from the same store would be hopeless to replace the $250 jeans and $150 t-shirt that would be required to pull off the relaxed look with some dignity and style. It's bad enough that a more casual approach results in less impressive items, but sub-CEO people are not merely wearing sporty designer sweaters and sleek jeans. The combination of these two effects really hollows out a large chunk of the public who would otherwise look pretty good.

Since the result is to push middle-class people to compete in an area where they are absolutely doomed -- casual sportswear -- let's ask Lenin's famous "who? whom?" question. Have the countercultural class warriors created the "less formal" trend in order to brutalize the appearance and self-confidence of the working and middle classes, exaggerating the most easily visible differences between them and the upper classes, all to fan the flames of inter-class hatred? "Guh, look at that pig in his yuppie suit!" etc., from a person who not long ago might have worn a jacket and tie himself.

Given that most of those who champion this credo harbor a more intense hatred of those above than a love of those below, this interpretation may not be as crazy as it sounds. Of course, I haven't read any of the popular (let alone, er, "scholarly") books on this subject, so this could have already been suggested, debated, and defeated. It's just hard to see who else benefits -- well, the upper classes themselves, but they can't control how those below them dress... without a mole to do their work from the inside. Those would be the celebrities -- from sub-elite backgrounds but who connote "high class" in the minds of the populace, and who enjoy dragging standards down, often into the gutter. But celebrities are for another time.


  1. I'll merely point out something I wrote seven years ago on a Usenet group, explaining why I dislike men's suits. Nothing has changed, except of course that suits have gotten even more expensive.

    1) Cost. Suits are expensive. Figure that a halfway decent
    looking one'll set you back at least $350 to $400. You can get cheaper ones, but they make you look like a failed used car salesman. Oh, and this isn't to mention the accessories that
    you'll need - tie, dress shirt, dress shoes. For the cost of a decent suit, I can go to Old Navy or Target or Kohl's and get maybe four or five pairs of jeans or khakis, a like number of casual shirts, a pair of sneakers, a pair of work boots, some socks, and probably still have some change left over.
    2) Inconvenience. Just buying a suit is a major pain in the posterior, never mind the cost. Note that I mentioned Old Navy, Target and Kohl's. You won't find suits at any of those places.
    Nor at Wal-Mart, K-Mart or the Gap. Specialty men's clothing
    stores are rapidly disappearing. So in order to buy a suit,
    you're limited to a few department stores or to one of the very
    few remaining men's stores. Once you're there, you'll have to
    try on suits to see what fits. Now, with casual clothes, I know
    my size and never bother trying anything on. Women might like
    trying things on, but few if any men do. Finally, once you've
    found a suit you like, you generally have to have it altered (at
    extra cost, of course). Not so convenient if you want to wear
    the suit right away.
    3) Coats. Once the weather gets cold, you'll need a trench coat
    to wear over your suit (add another cost item). I detest wearing
    long coats, they're so inconvenient. Unfortunately, short
    jackets or sweaters don't go with suits.
    4) Cleaning. Don't expect to toss your suit in the washing
    machine when it needs to be cleaned. Nope, suits are dry-clean
    only, which means more cost and more inconvenience. In addition,
    dry cleaning weakens the fabric of a suit.
    5) Wear. Suits are made of rather fragile fabric - compare them
    to jeans, made of nearly indestructible denim. It's not so much
    that they wear out quickly, though that can be true with the
    lesser prices ones, but that they wear out unevenly. What
    invariably happens is that the pants wear out much more quickly
    than the jackets, the area between the thighs being a weak spot,
    meaning you're going to be left with "orphaned" jackets, in good
    shape but unwearable.
    6) Style. Suit styles change fairly quickly. Twenty years ago,
    three-piece suits were all the rage, today they're hopelessly out
    of style. Then it was the two-button model, which in turn has
    been supplanted by the three-button.
    7) The gender factor. Suits are one thing that most definitely
    separate men from women. Yes, there are women's suits, but
    they're quite different indeed. Don't get me wrong, I'm not
    saying that men and women should dress exactly the same, _vive la
    difference_ and all that, but only that suits are divisive, for
    lack of a better terms, by highlighting the gender differences.
    8) The toupee factor. One so-called advantage of suits is that
    they make imperfect body types look better. The right suit will
    make a shorter man look taller, a portly man look trimmer and
    more athletic, even an older man look younger. But is that
    really good? I dislike the way so many people are dissatisfied
    with their appearances and try, usually vainly, to look better.
    Way I see things, you are the way you are, and should be proud of
    that. Wearing a suit in certain circumstances is therefore akin
    to wearing a toupee.

  2. (I note for the record that the above comment was what inspired the Udolpho post I linked to in my GNXP post: Here)

  3. Don't get me wrong, it just isn't right for most men to dress as if they sleep under bridges and eat out of dumpsters. I'm all for clean, presentable, well-fitting and age-appropriate clothing. What I am saying is that neat appearance in most work and other contexts does NOT require wearing a God-damned monkey suit. All that's needed in most cases is wearing pants other than jeans or shorts, footwear other than sneakers, and a shirt that's not a T-shirt. Everything should fit properly. And of course the pants and shirt should be clean and relatively wrinkle-free.

  4. it must be male fashion week in the internets.

    the seduction subculture is beginning to have a big impact on defining the sub-elite fashion standards for men who want to look good without looking like staid company men.

    i highly recommend buying or torrenting a copy of Pickup101's "Dress to Impress" 3-DVD series. the guy knows his stuff.

  5. Hm.

    The reason we can't go back to wearing suits all the time, though I would sort of like to, is that it undermines the original reason for wearing suits, which is a gesture of respect to the world, basically. If you wore suits all the time it would be taken as an affront. We now need to strike a balance. I wear a suit, or failing that a jacket and tie, to evening plays or concerts (making me more formal than most of the old people). But wearing even slacks and a dress shirt all the time in everyday life would just be preening. Sad, but true.

    $250 jeans, to people who know anything about jeans, are generally recognizable as $250 jeans (even the ones with no brand markings). This takes a lot away from the style because the whole point of jeans is to look like you are not trying very hard. Jeans are inherently not for dressing up. The look you have to go for with jeans is ultimately going to be derived from a 50s greaser aesthetic, from cowboys, or from punk. "Sleek" does not belong with jeans. How they fit is important, but a good fit can be achieved without a lot of money.

    More generally--the key to style, it is often said, is "art that conceals art." You do try, but the instant you look like you're trying you have failed. Really stylish men can wear multi-thousand dollar suits and still look like they're not trying at all.

    I have never found anything worthwhile in Century 21 or Filene's by the way. Thrift stores (far from New York) can be fruitful. So are stores that sell basics cheaply. Lately I was impressed by the fall/winter clothes at Uniqlo. But the designer stuff at the discount stores is invariably "fashion forward" and horrible. Designer classics are another matter but you will not get those on the cheap. All of my really nice clothes are from my dad's younger days.

  6. You're assuming that negating one end of a spectrum compels you to assert the opposite end -- which isn't true.

    That's also not true about jeans -- there were sleek, minimal jeans from almost the moment they became widespread as fashion in the '70s. I don't see how that looks fussy or overwrought: it takes all of five seconds to slip them on and button them up. No nonsense.

    And if you think I'm asking too much of people to dress better, imagine asking them to dress well and make it appear effortless to boot! Prole uniforms are more visually offensive than middle class uniforms, so if people err on the side of a bit more, that's better than the realistic alternative of them dressing like slobs, not "understated chic" upper class people.

    You must be going to some wacky discount stores, btw. It's true that Century 21 caters more to the risible "gay club boy" crowd than it should, but they have plenty of sober and traditional stuff there. In fact, *tons* now that they've expanded the mens section to include a lot of the 2nd floor.

    At my local Saks outlet, about as fashion-forward as the suits come are Hugo Boss, and those are rare. They're mostly Calvin Klein, Armani Collezioni, and so on; ditto for the Neiman Marcus outlet next-door. They do carry weirdo stuff as well, but you'd definitely find a sober businessman's suit or sweater if you looked.

  7. Since the result is to push middle-class people to compete in an area where they are absolutely doomed -- casual sportswear -- let's ask Lenin's famous "who? whom?" question. Have the countercultural class warriors created the "less formal" trend in order to brutalize the appearance and self-confidence of the working and middle classes, exaggerating the most easily visible differences between them and the upper classes, all to fan the flames of inter-class hatred? "Guh, look at that pig in his yuppie suit!" etc., from a person who not long ago might have worn a jacket and tie himself.

    Naaah. I think they're just slackers who hate dressing up.


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