Home / Whatever Happened to the Well-Dressed Man or Woman? Part III

Whatever Happened to the Well-Dressed Man or Woman? Part III

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(Continued from Part II)

A couple of generations ago dressing down used to have negative connotations. It meant dressing below standard, below what was even considered appropriate for casual or sportswear. It was such an issue that the last thing you wanted to experience from a parent or your boss was a "dressing down."

Nowadays, dressing down pretty much means avoiding at all costs anything resembling good taste, especially anything tailored, such as a suit (men's or women's), or a blazer and slacks, a dress, or a skirt with a co-ordinating blouse. Dressing down is a by-product of the 70's/80's commercialisation of the 60's free-speech, anti-war, "it's-not-what's-on-the-outside-but-what's-on-the-inside-that-counts" movements. This, of course, brings us to the idea of "casual Fridays," which is little more than an excuse for not wanting to look like Gregory Peck in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit – a look I don't necessarily see as negative.

The movie Good Night, and Good Luck made a strong impression on me. It takes place at the CBS studios in New York during the early 50's. What impressed me (beyond David Strathairn's uncannily realistic portrayal of Edward R. Murrow) was the setting, and more precisely, how people dressed in that setting in that time: the men in their dress shirts and ties, the women in A-line dresses or skirts and blouses with mostly collar and stand or peter pan necklines. Now granted, this was an office environment in the news division of a major network; and yes, there was a sameness, an overtly conformist look (emphasised in the movie by the black and white cinematography); nevertheless, the setting was not atypical of the standard office environment of the time. The point is, they looked professional – people serious about their work who dressed accordingly.

Ideally, I suppose, the world would be better if people weren't judged by what they wear, or how they maintain their hair, or how they smell and other aspects of personal hygiene – hmmm. Anyway, such are not the ways of most highly developed cultures. And since our society thrives on the visceral, what we wear is one of the primary determining factors in how we present ourselves; it tells others a lot about how we wish (or, more accurately, how others think we wish) to be perceived. That includes all manner of dress, whatever the circumstances. Whether we like it or not, what we wear makes a very powerful initial – visceral – impression.

Dressing down is just that; dressing down. It's a symbol of lowered standards – standards society has come to accept as the norm. It reflects the cavalier attitude that recent generations have fostered toward the imprecise, the unclear, the inexact. We no longer focus our attention on one or two tasks, endeavouring diligently to assure their veracity. No, today we multi-task, which is a euphemism for companies overworking and underpaying employees so as to achieve what can only be at best the bare minimum. As long as we get the job done. Whether it's done well is really not the principal concern today. Businesses supposedly can't afford the time and cost of someone concentrating singlemindedly on only one or two projects and doing them well. We proclaim the need for and supposedly value excellence; but we really don't have time for it. We can't afford it.

Yet, for some reason we have lots of time and money to redo the job again and again until it's right; that is, until it's "good enough." I use general terms because this issue of multi-tasking is endemic throughout our society. It does not matter whether the work involves manufacturing or supplying a service; multi-tasking, cutting corners, is pervasive. And it's reflected in how we dress. Treating your appearance seriously is no different than treating your work seriously.

Oh, I can hear it now: "I don't need to get all dressed up to do my job well." Theoretically that's very true. But, dollars to donuts, reality dictates the opposite. Unfortunately, the sin of it all is that when you don't know a higher standard you don't know you're lacking it. If the standard of dress is slovenly, well, I guess that's "the style" and we're supposedly no worse off for the lack of knowing any better.

Unfortunately, there is no surprise in any of this. After all, we are a society driven by what is commercially expedient; and the key to commercial expediency is the lowest common denominator – what has become referred to as "pop culture," in which charlatans like Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, John Cage, Terry Riley, John Galliano, John Gaultier, and any street thug who spews violence-laden profanities to a back-beat are lauded as geniuses. Who needs to learn how to draw? Who needs theory and counterpoint? Who needs talent? Evidently nobody these days.

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About Ralph Fisher

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    So,(using your logic) then what kind of excuse do the “well dressed” CEO’s have for outsourcing the “Dressed Down” American jobs to Indonesia in order to save a few bucks??
    How about the “Well Dressed” politicians that supported the outsourcing?
    And,You honestly think that multi-tasking originated with us inferior dressed working class schmucks?!

  • You obviously completely misread this thing. I’m not going to waste time trying to explain what is perfectly clear. When some one is so predisposed to using any non sequitur as justification to make any silly comment which has nothing to do with the topic.

  • It makes sense to me. 🙂

  • Jordan Richardson

    I actually thought Brian asked some rather important questions, to be honest, and it strikes me that Ralph isn’t particularly furthering an education in all things “well-dressed” with such a crude, condescending brush-off.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I didn’t misread any part of this ridiculous article!
    I tried to make my point in a more thought provoking way,but, it is obvious you didn’t catch it. Your stance is that the style of clothing we wear will dictate a person’s mindset and ultimately a society’s ability (or inability) to function properly and on that I call “Bullshit”.

    A lot of important people that changed our lives for the better, especially in technology, did not dress like an heir to the throne. A lot of important shit happened in people’s basements while wearing whatever was comfortable to them. It just so happens that during Thomas Edison’s day, jeans were used for overalls (modern jeans came about in the 1920s)and Mr. Edison wasn’t a farmer.

    And, a lot of people that changed our lives for the worst,especially in Government & Religion, dressed like they were already Kings & Queens. I think you should research what the well dressed Pope is doing for the AIDS epidemic in South Africa…

  • The point is, they looked professional – people serious about their work who dressed accordingly.

    yes, and they also chain-smoked and smelled terrible. such a ‘professional’ smell.

    good gawd, this is such a silly topic.

    now, i have to get back to finishing up work on a realtime control system that will be a part of a defibrillator/pacing system to be used in a clinical setting. i do so hope that those whose lives are saved are not offended that i wrote the code while wearing a flannel shirt and a pair of jeans with a small hole in the crotch.