Wednesday, March 23, 2011

America: The Nation of Bad Clothes

Clothes are a trivial subject. But take a trip anywhere USA and the clothes you see in airports are almost as bad as the food.

The world is falling apart all around us. Earthquakes, tsunamis, exploding nuclear power plants, everyone in the Middle East killing everyone else. It makes a person feel helpless. Which is probably why the only thing I can do today is focus on my favorite trivial subject of late: the American lack of style.

Stroll through an airport. Walk through a mall. Go to church and watch the folks file up to take the Holy Sacrament. If you let your mind wander during the hymn, you'll be frightened enough to convert: the clothes are really awful! I can't figure it out. Why are we so rich and looking so bad? I know this is shallow. I hate myself for caring about it. But something bad is going on and I want to understand it.

I was waiting for my luggage at the San Jose, California airport and I was bored, so that's why you are stuck looking at these pictures of people in bad clothes.

Designer John Galliano of Dior was recently unmasked as a fan of Hitler--hard to believe there are any of those--in a drunken raving that was caught on video and sent him to a Paris police station. I've wondered if the world of couture, dominated by really strange men who wear odd clothes and produce ever more bizarre things for their runway shows, was not to blame for the hopeless lack of style we see around us.

Galliano, pre disgrace, dressed up to get his picture taken.

Perhaps when we see the "couture" on a Paris runway, it is enough to drive us all into a lumpy sweatsuits.

Here's a little number from the latest Dior collection that this famous fashion house thinks you should slip into for your next party.

So, since Paris isn't helping us in the guidance department, we just dress in these big dowdy sacks. I don't know. There must be a better alternative.

Typical American, waiting for a ride at the airport. Well, she couldn't wear that Dior number above: she'd be way too cold.

I'm trying to decide if it says anything about our society. Perhaps we are not as shallow as previous generations who felt they had to wear hats and gloves and stockings (for ladies) and homburgs and suits with vests (for men) when they appeared in public places. Maybe it is a sign of our advance?

But can't one be thoughtful and deep and still like nice fabrics and tailoring?

Maybe this is especially difficult for me because I am a fan of classic films, and the women in classic films really dressed. Even actresses like Bette Davis looked devastating when they were supposed to be dowdy shop girls.

She's from the wrong side of town in this movie, but even her wrong-side-of-town clothes look fabulous.

Shop girls saw those movies and tried to copy those clothes, and even the poor looked spiffy when they took to their sewing machines and added cuffs and collars to the simple clothes they could afford.

Well, that's my diatribe. I'm trying to decide if it says something--bad or good--about our civilization that in just the last decade we've abandoned all pretense of "style" and moved into an amorphous world of ugly but comfortable.

I'm not better than the average. I too have turned from style to comfort. And after centuries of tradition I wonder why this has happened.

I'd love to hear what you think. I'm flummoxed.

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Steven said...

Robin: The view from the historian of technology and culture--
1/clothing is not trivial; it is, as the book of the same title had it, "The Mirror of History" among much else;
2/context matters, so regarding what people wear in Steerage Class, when air travel became the equivalent of bus travel in socio-cultural terms, dressing for comfort became not only acceptable but essential for personal health; up front in First Class, you will still find up-dressers, even among us men;
3/recall that one of the goals of the Sixties radicals was taking down The Establishment, and that meant taking down any sense of formality in dress, demeanor, or interpersonal activities; hence professors in blue jeans at universities, as part of the assault on elitism, which included and still includes using first (or, formerly, "Christian") names in social transactions in which such pseudo-familiarity was frowned upon; and
4/the persistent puerility of society in general, with supposedly adult men dressing and acting like adolescents into their forties, phenomena frequently commented upon by social conservatives (like me) but not changed thereby.

John Derbyshire at National Review, observing these behaviors and much else, thinks it adds up to the title of his book: "We Are Doomed" as a civilization. I disagree, and expect the return of some formality in dress, demeanor, and discourse, because it has real value for those who practice it--but explaining why is another essay entirely. --Steve Thompson

Robin Chapman said...

I was up in Business Class and it didn't look much better!!! Anyway, my family was laughing rather heartily when I started talking about this during their recent visit, so it is nice that it does actually have some cultural significance. One thing that is possible, I think, is that, just as this huge change has gone from one extreme (hats and gloves) to the other (blubbery looking sweat clothes) it might, one day, swing back the other way. So I'm putting my white gloves in the drawer, just in case.

Anonymous said...

If you think the dress at airports and such is bad, try Wallmart. There is an amazing number of folks who are fascinated by that culture.

Janet ~

Robin Chapman said...

Just think how different things are now, Janet, from being students in high school where we had to have our skirts a certain length and always had sweaters to match, tucked in our shirts etc. etc. I'm not one who always thinks the old days are better than today. It is just that the clothes are so bad today. I'm trying to figure out ... why???

Don Meuler said...

Have you seen Browse around there for awhile and the world around you won't seem so bad. It still will be, but it won't seem like it.

Don Meuler said...

And let me know when your "next party" is...

Robin Chapman said...

Why, do you want to borrow my elbow length gloves?

Don Meuler said...

Nah, you'd probably be chilly without them.

Laura said...

What a great subject! I remember in grade school, we were only allowed to wear pants on rain & snow days (late 1960's/early 1970's in Wichita). Our teachers, whom I always thought were elderly but were probably the same age I am now, always wore attractive dresses. And now I find myself drawn to eyelet and cotton dresses and skirts for the spring/summer/fall wardrobe here in the high desert. It's so much cooler than slacks and I wouldn't be caught dead in shorts at my age. Just the other day my 21-year-old daughter and I stopped into Ikea after church, and a gentleman stopped us to say "It's nice to see ladies dress like ladies. You two look so pretty." It made our day!

Robin Chapman said...

Living in Florida I liked to wear long, caftan like dresses during the day when I was writing. Dresses are cooler in the summer and it makes one understand why the men in Arab countries wear a long gown. Maybe you're at the leading edge of change. I hope so.