A 2013 exhibit at the Field Museum about the ancient paintings at Lascaux devoted a wing to recreating part of the original caves. Greeting museum visitors as they entered were two full-size fiberglass models of Neolithic people, a man and a woman, dressed in their finest animal furs and jewelry. There they stood, peering out incredulous at the passing museum crowd, doubtless thinking: what slobs!
Sad but true. “Dressing down” has become our national passion. We’ve regressed from “casual Friday” to “constantly scraggly.” Anywhere one goes in public, there they are: the scruffy and unkempt, flaunting their torn jeans, pajama bottoms, baggy pants, cut-off shorts, flip-flops and rumpled and ripped T-shirts.
This is a new stage in our sartorial evolution. Sumptuary laws going back thousands of years dictated how people should look. The great American panjandrums of a century ago – Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Warren Harding – went camping together in their suits and ties. Old photos show Chicagoans of a century ago thronging the Loop or Wrigley Field in their best clothing.
And recall the iconic Robert Young in the midcentury TV series “Father Knows Best,” sitting down to dinner with Mom, Princess and Bud in his gray suit, dark tie and white shirt and carefully folded pocket square.
At workplaces, concert halls, dining rooms, camp sites, ballrooms and sporting events – everywhere people went – they took care to look their best.
This may seem stultifying to our modern sensibilities, but it had a clear rationale. Numerous studies show that better dress leads to greater lifetime success.
So what happened? As a Boomer I can, like Pogo, say: I have met the enemy and he is us. Our generation, prized and pampered like no other, treasured non-conformity and demanded the right to express ourselves and behave as we saw fit. Pop stars crooned “I Gotta Be Me” and demonstrators chanted “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!”
That wasn’t all bad. Boomer activism helped get LBJ and Nixon out of the White House and our soldiers home from Vietnam.
But clearly all that protesting and self-expression meant replacing dresses and suits with far more casual wear of doubtful taste and dubious fashion, such as bell-bottom jeans, tie-die shirts, shoulder pads, tube tops, platform shoes, oversize pants, mini-dresses, facial tattoos, tongue studs and, worst of all, the mullet – all of it the sartorial equivalent of junk food.
I must confess to being one of those slobs I inveigh against. I used to think it was liberating and healthy to ignore the old social constraints. No more. I have put a match to my rumpled blue jeans and sweat pants, oversize sweatshirts and wool pullovers. Gone the dreaded turtlenecks and tank tops.
Those Neolithic fashionistas in the Field Museum? I’m trying hard to emulate them.