In 2001, I started working at what used to be called a “white shoe” law firm, an anachronistic reference to the white buckskin shoes worn by Ivy League men of a bygone age. By the time I got there, the attorneys were wearing black or dark brown oxfords or brogues, but the code, while different, was enforced with equal rigidity. One afternoon, having been at the firm without sleep since the previous night—about 30 hours—I staggered onto the elevator with my collar open and my tie loose. An older partner turned and spoke to me in a voice that seemed to come from the late nineteenth century: “Young man, we have not met, but I assume you are employed by this firm. You will find that we do not open the collars of our shirts before 5 p.m., and certainly not in the public spaces, where we might easily be observed by a client.”
The world has changed a good deal since the repeal, in the seventeenth century, of the sumptuary laws that made it illegal in medieval and Renaissance Europe for commoners to wear apparel associated with nobility and proscribed the wearing of luxury fabrics by persons below a certain annual income. The result has been the democratization of dress—broadly speaking, a victory for human liberty. The rapid casualization of American life in the last several decades, however, of which relaxed codes of dress are only one telling component, ought to leave us feeling more ambivalent. The tech industry, whose titans are pointedly casual in dress, probably began this shift, which two years of lockdowns—of working at home in our pajamas—have hardened into a different kind of rigid norm.
Standards of dress are viewed with suspicion because they can operate as a means of exclusion. Sometimes this exclusion is formal, as when a club or restaurant requires a jacket and tie. Perhaps more insidiously, exclusion can be effected by a set of codes not easily discerned by outsiders. I experienced this when, during the 1980s preppy craze, I moved from my public school to a private middle school. For three years, my clothes were wrong, and therefore I was wrong, marked from the start as not belonging. Such attempts to exclude can be overcome by special talent or charisma, or by strength of character. Lacking these things, I finished as I had begun, as a social also-ran.
Fashion also often operates, however, as a mechanism of inclusion. Put on the prescribed uniform every day—be it coveralls or a pinstriped suit—and you become part of a team. The journey from the place we start to the distant and half-imagined place we hope will be our destination might begin with the purchase of some aspirational piece of clothing. The fashion industry sells this Cinderella dream of transformation, and dollar for dollar, it might deliver better value than higher education.
Clothes are also one of the ways we understand the past, principally through photographs. The Victorians expressed their moral, intellectual, and spiritual aspirations through dress, and so did the Edwardians, and the Puritans, and nobles at the court of Louis IV. No sartorial code is ever so strict as to eliminate self-expression; even a military uniform, meant to “speak” for the state rather than the individual soldier, may be worn loose or tight, with medals and insignia carefully arranged or less so. The personality of the wearer always finds a way through. Think of the work that General Douglas MacArthur’s peaked cap and tropical khaki did in expressing his characteristic casual arrogance. A man of such command presence had no need for ribbons.
We tend to focus on what our fashion choices tell others—about our income, our professional status, our sexual preferences. Fashion can also put us in productive dialogue with ourselves. Someone who has lost his job can wake up and say, “I am unemployed, and perhaps I am even unloved, but today I will shower and put on a crisp shirt, because I believe in my own worth even if no one else does.” Clothes are one of the ways we articulate our aspirations. When we speak only in jeans and sweatshirts and soft-soled shoes, we leave half of this language untouched.
Few things are more heartening than to see a man or woman of advanced age very well dressed. Such a simple assertion of dignity always commands admiration, just as it should, but it would still be worth doing even if no one noticed. And clothes need not be formal to speak elegantly. I remember the impression Brad Pitt made in his baggy tweeds and suede vest in A River Runs Through It. The especially well-favored somehow possess more authority in understated, casual clothes. For the rest of us—here I am speaking principally of men—there is the suit, whose durability is derived from its giving a shape to the torso that nature has failed to provide.
Starting around 1965, you would have read articles, similar in tone to this one, lamenting the decline of public hat-wearing by men. Hats were a culture, one with American roots dating back at least to the late nineteenth century; the gradual passing away of that culture inevitably engendered a sense of loss for those who remembered the totemic hats of their fathers and grandfathers. Essentialism in fashion is untenable, just as it is in linguistics. Neither fashion nor language use is static, and scolds are always overtaken by events. The push-pull of tradition and novelty, of things as they are and things as they were, is what makes these expressive modes vital.
Perhaps I am really expressing a personal grievance here, the sense that many of the types of distinction I have spent my adult life trying to cultivate are increasingly regarded as quaint. I’ve accepted that I will be regarded as overdressed in most restaurants, at parent-teacher conferences, even on airplanes. Maybe this speaks to something disagreeable in my nature; I value my own slightly antique sense of propriety more than I do fitting in. I do not resent people who dress more for comfort than for style, or who do not share my sense of occasion. They are talking to themselves and their friends in the language they choose. Learning to mind your own business can be a kind of superpower.
Ideally, though, when we tacitly agree that a wedding or social event calls for a sartorial effort, we hold ourselves and one another not merely to a standard of dress but to a standard of conduct. More formal attire signals our intent to show restraint, to observe proprieties, to keep the howling wolf of the self on a leash. More than that, dressing up can be a complex and spirited form of play. We should be reluctant to give it up in the name of a dubious new catechism of perpetual leisure.