Americans dress more casually…because they can

A historian explain how and why American clothing styles have changed toward the casual:

It wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, Americans didn’t dress casually all the time. There were dress codes and customs. Men wore suits and hats, women wore dresses. Jeans and t-shirts were for laborers, not professionals.

“Casual is the sweet spot between looking like every middle class American and being an individual in the massive wash of options,” Clemente told the Post.

She says we now find meaning in the way we dress, in a way we didn’t in the early 20th century, when people dressed more aspirationally. They wanted to look as though they had higher social status than they actually did.

As it turns out, historians can point to two major periods in the 20th century that changed the way we dress today: the 1920s, when women started breaking away from dresses and fewer men attending college wore full suits; and World War II, when women cared more about their work in the factories and the victory gardens than what they were wearing on the particular day.

While the goals of choosing certain clothes have changed (from projecting a higher social standing which is now viewed as gauche since we are all middle class to individualization), clothing is still intended to present a message to others. Arguably, that individualization is still about status but a different kind. Instead of pointing to traditional markers of class such as money and wealth, individualization points to creative status and taste. Perhaps we have shifted the symbolic boundaries of clothing from socioeconomic boundaries to cultural boundaries (to use the terms laid out by sociologist of culture Michele Lamont) where the aesthetic choices we make now matter more.

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