Compared with a few decades ago we have today an unprecedented opportunity to dress and decorate ourselves as we wish. Tattoos, quirky hair styles (including shaven heads for both men and women), colourful makeup and, of course, garments of every shape and hue are now as common as they were once rare.
In the medieval period, people’s garments were coloured according to their station in life and if a peasant, for example, wore the colours of a lord, he could expect to find himself in grave trouble. In the middle of the 20th century, things were not quite that bad but people still could not depart too far from the norms without attracting unwelcome attentions.
Things changed, slowly at first and then with gathering speed. I still remember the shock of seeing a student come into the examination hall wearing a tee shirt whose motto included the f-word.
That is not to say that dress today, despite its apparent chaos, is any less regimented than it was in the middle of the 20th century. Careful scrutiny of people in the streets of London, and on buses and tubes, suggests that people still dress according to class – still wear uniform, in a sense – though making sense of exactly what these classes are is a much more difficult task.
Some are easy, such as the man-in-the-business-suit, who works for some serious enterprise such as a bank or building society, in a solicitor’s office, etc. In some ways, the suit has gained importance, rather than lost it, precisely because it has become rarer. It is now easy to declare “I am a serious individual – look at my suit” than it was when all but labourers wore them.
The phenomenon of “dress-down Fridays” goes hand in hand with that other curious sartorial invention of the late 20th century, “smart casual”. Semantically, these two words are the antithesis of one another, yet the concept has taken root in the language and is here to stay. I think it was originally used as a dress code by pubs wishing to bar men in dirty work clothes but since then it has become more widely current.
“Smart casual” is one of those wonderful concepts that are impossible to define. They belong in the “I can’t say what it is but I know it when I see it” hamper. In a way, it is now the default costume of the British public or, rather, those sections of the British public that don’t wear something else. “Smart casual” is not without interest but it is the “something else” that fascinates and begs description and analysis. The subject is far too complex to deal with in a single post. This is therefore a theme I hope to return to on other occasions.
For now I will ask a question. What motives do people have when they deliberately choose what style to wear? Yes, I know there are lots of different motives but I think they probably fall into loose categories such as “To impress”, “To be different”, “To look professional”, etc. Perhaps the most interesting answer is to consider one’s own motives. I suspect many people don’t really know why they wear what they wear, never having thought it through. If you feel like leaving a Comment on this, please do.