We Are Slobs

Fashion retail is failing because we prefer to dress like bums


charles i. letbetter

The Short Version

With thousands of major brand name stores closing this year, fashion labels and department stores alike are struggling to find a way adapt to a fundamental shift in how people dress. Comfort dominates over style. Dress codes once forged in steel have been shattered. Rare are the occasions when we feel the need to “dress up.” Our preference is for wearing what once would have been referred to as gym clothes. All around the world, we have become a society of slobs.

Defining The Situation

My youngest son’s prom was last night. He came out of his room dressed in a black tux with white shirt and a tie that I had to tie for him. He was even wearing hard soled shoes for the first time in well over a year. He was handsome. He looked good. I took pictures to send to his mother.

Within ten minutes of arriving back home, however, he was back in his typical uniform of shorts and a t-shirt so old the white cotton has yellowed. This is how he prefers to dress. This is how his friends prefer to dress. They see little reason to dress up, especially if they’re spending most their day in a classroom.

On one hand, it would be easy to say that my son’s choice of clothing style is typical of a generation, and to some extent it is. However, his generation is merely taking to the extreme a trend that has been growing since before I was a teenager. We can talk about millennials and Gen-X and Boomers all we want, but the truth is we’ve been building to this level of casualness since the Great Depression of the 1930s, nearly a century ago. Society’s standards for clothing are not based on the trends of a single fashion season but upon multiple generations desiring to be more comfortable, less rigid, and freer.

Unfortunately, in our desire to run away from the corporate dress code and gender-based stereotypes, we have gone to such an extreme where the greater majority no longer care about trends or passing fads, or standards, or social expectations. We care more about our own comfort, creating our own “style,” being “unique,” and not selling out to a label. In the process, we have become a society that is full of slobs. We’re not just casual. Our global fashion style has evolved to a point to where wrinkled and slouchy is acceptable and we have decided to be okay with that.

A Slow Progression

One of the challenging aspects of my life now is that I struggle to get in 30 minutes of physical exercise or reasonably aerobic activity during the day. My doctor insists that I must, but our house is small, space is limited, and the effects of unpredictable weather provide too many convenient obstacles. Still, I have to take responsibility for my health (Kat insists) and that led to me going to the mall this week to do that stereotypical old person thing: walk. I have become that person. We’re not there to shop, just walk.

I took the 18-year-old with me for safety. I still don’t have these new meds balanced out just yet and sudden blood sugar drops are a problem. Sure enough, by the time we made a couple of rounds, I needed to sit and chug some juice. This gave us a chance to people watch, which is typically an interesting enough activity all on its own. What we observed was interesting.

The number of women wearing some form of Spandex®-infused leggings was roughly 70 percent. Most were black, but there were a couple of middle-aged women whose thighs were far from toned wearing leggings of bright colors and designs that made it impossible to not notice that their thighs were large and not toned. Easily 90 percent of men were in jeans or some other casual pant, loose fitting, a little too long. The day’s cool and wet weather had most everyone in a jacket, the range running from Nanook of the North-styled parkas to plain hoodies. Under those jackets were primarily t-shirts, which isn’t too surprising. None of the shirt tails were tucked, though, and men especially tended to not tie their shoe laces, leaving them dangling or tucked in the top of their sneakers. The general appearance, overall, was best termed as slouchy.

Sure, there were exceptions. We saw a couple of young women wearing very nice dresses, fully coiffed and made up, pushing babies in strollers as they headed toward Von Maur with fierce determination. People of certain ethnicities and religious practice were dressed according to their cultures’ traditions. One young woman, who might have been coming from or going to a job interview, was dressed what we traditionally refer to as “professional” but was having some difficulty walking in block heels that were about a size too large for her.

Those were the very obvious exceptions, however. More typical was the teenage girl who wandered into Pac-Sun wearing well-worn flannel pajama pants and a frayed hoodie. The pajamas were long enough to nearly hide her worn sneakers and the hoodie was large enough to obliterate most her features. She shuffled as she walked and her phone never left her ear.

How did we get here? Blaming generations is easy, but incorrect. We’ve been building up to this for a very long time.

Prior to the stock market crash of 1929, what one wore defined their place in society and the vast majority of people were anxious to look better off than they were. Think of what we refer to as the “roaring” twenties and one conjures images of girls in flapper dresses and men in sharp pinstripe suits. While the every-day reality was something a little less formal, there remained a sense that how one dressed reflected their character and morality.

The Great Depression changed all that, however, and by the time we came out of World War II we had begun softening our attitudes toward how we dressed, especially in non-work settings. Denim moved away from being strictly the uniform of labor and became an after-school favorite of teens and college students. Slacks became a regular part of women’s fashion and men came home and traded their suits for khaki slacks and open-collared short-sleeve shirts. As quaint as that may sound to us now, it was a fundamental shift in philosophy as casual wear became a fundamental part of the fashion industry.

Once society got a taste for casual style, we decided we really liked it and slowly moved toward integrating more casual looks into our daily wardrobes. By the time we got to the 1970s, we had the horrible experience of the leisure suit, leather fringe, and the shift toward athletic footwear for things other than athletics. The “track suit” became a thing and President Jimmy Carter even wore jeans and a denim jacket in the oval office. Ronald Reagan tried pulling the nation back with forced formality at the White House, but it was too late. Casual Friday became a workplace

Casual Friday became a workplace norm in the mid-80s and by the time Bill Clinton took office in 1992 the world was well on its way toward khaki hell, fueled by the casual attitudes of the burgeoning high-tech industry.  Office dress codes that once required ties and jackets of men and dresses for women were the exception rather than the rule by the time the world nervously celebrated Y2K. Denim was always pre-washed and often “distressed” and ripped in strategic places. Flip-flops replaced sneakers to the point that some people didn’t think twice about wearing them for official visits to the White House.

Underwear became a part of our fashion sense, partly thanks to Madonna and partly the influence of Calvin Klein. “Street style” and “urban” became regular parts of our fashion lexicon. Questions of what, exactly, defined “office appropriate” became a regular struggle for HR managers who no longer had a clear road map to follow. We rebelled against any kind of forced style structure and increasingly insisted upon autonomy in deciding what we wear.

At the same time, we also became more self-aware regarding our health and our bodies. Videos on the Internet allowed us to see “behind the scenes” of how the “beautiful people” kept in shape. Fitness went mainstream and yoga, especially, not only became the dominant form of wellness but also infused itself into our fashion sense. Yoga pants and sports bras went from being something one wore to the gym to a regular part of our wardrobes no matter where we were.

In 2014, Vanessa Friedman, of The New York Times asked what to call this “gym-to-street sector that has suddenly become the hottest thing to cover two legs?” Nike CEO Mike Parker declared, “Leggings are the new denim.” Beyoncé’s line for Topshop targeted “women who go to yoga or the health club, as well as those who just want to look as if they do,” according to WWD. The term “athleisure” came to define those clothes that have an athletic appearance but are not really meant for one to actually sweat in. Alexander Wang, chief among the athleisure designers, made a killing.

In the short years since our style decisions have completely disintegrated. If athleisure is okay, then a couple of steps below that must be okay as well. Ragged, ill-fitting, wrinkled, old, and frayed have become such a standard part of our wardrobe that we even see those elements incorporated on fashion’s runways.

The problem is that fashion relies on trends, which change and lead us to keep buying new clothes. Athleisure is not a trend and as we dissolve into a new level of slovenliness we care less and less about purchasing anything new.

Fashion On The Ropes

A part of me cried this week when Ralph Lauren announced that they are closing their flagship store on New York’s 5th Avenue. Not only has that store been the base for all things Ralph Lauren, in recent years it’s been the home for the designer’s fashion shows, spectacles that transformed the entire store into a giant runway. Lauren is not alone, though. Fashion retailers are fleeing their 5th Avenue shops like rats flee a sinking ship and that sinking metaphor is more appropriate than any of us care to admit. Consider the number of store closing already announced this year:

  • Payless
    Stores closing in 2017: 1,000
  • RadioShack
    Stores closing in 2017: 552
  • The Limited
    Stores closing in 2017: 250
  • Family Christian
    Stores closing in 2017: 240
  • Wet Seal
    Stores closing in 2017: 171
  • Bebe
    Stores closing in 2017: 170
  • Crocs
    Stores closing in 2017: 160
  • J.C.Penney
    Stores closing in 2017: 138
  • BCBG
    Stores closing in 2017: 120
  • American Apparel
    Stores closing in 2017: 110
  • Kmart
    Stores closing in 2017: 108
  • hh Gregg
    Stores closing in 2017: 88
  • Staples
    Stores closing in 2017: 70
  • CVS
    Stores closing in 2017: 70
  • Abercrombie & Fitch
    Stores closing in 2017: 60
  • Macys
    Stores closing in 2017: 68
  • Sears
    Stores closing in 2017: 42
  • Guess
    Stores closing in 2017: 60
  • Green Mountain
    Stores closing in 2017: 30

I know, not all of those have anything to do with fashion or style, but what affects one retail sector ultimately affects them all. How we dress or don’t dress, the degree to which we shop or don’t shop, has a ripple effect across all of retail, even reaching all the way out to seemingly extreme disconnects such as Family Christian stores. Guess what: we’re not buying religious t-shirts, either. The retail economy is reeling from such a severe attitude of casualness that we no longer give a fuck whether we buy anything or not.

Not that we care. As our society has descended into this realm of wearing whatever we pick up off the floor and calling it our “personal style,” we don’t seem to realize that at the core lies a self-centered philosophy that no one has a right to challenge or question what anyone else does. For me to sit at the mall and question whether or not someone should be wearing those leggings is considered “shaming,” and I’m told to not do that. For me to challenge the young woman who wore her pajamas to the mall is infringing upon her personal rights. Even my choice of titles, asserting that we are all slobs, is considered judgemental and inappropriate by most. We want to wear what we like and have rejected any sense that anyone has the right to even question our decisions.

The longer-term danger, beyond the severe economic impact and the jobs being lost, is that in our self-centered casual attitude we’ve not only stopped caring about what other people think, we’ve stopped caring at all. We care about my pets, my cars, and my life experiences. Sure, we still consume, and those who cater to our selfish desires are doing well. However, the Internet has made it all too convenient for to pretend that we care about refugees by simply donating $5 online rather than actually getting out and helping people. We post our political opinions on Facebook but can’t be bothered to actually have conversations that matter with our elected representatives. We’ll join a rally if enough other people are going because our egos are stroked when we appear to be part of something popular.

Unpopular conclusions

The examination that leads me here is harsh. We are slobs. We are self-centered. We are selfish. While none of these conditions are new, we’ve been this way for thousands of years, where society once considered these traits as something to avoid, we now embrace them fully and cherish them as if they were actually desirable. We love doing and wearing whatever the hell we want. We don’t care if our actions destroy the economy as long as we’re getting what we want. We just don’t want anyone else telling us what to do, where to go, or how to behave. We’re independent, dammit, and if we have to dress slovenly and act slovenly to prove that, then that’s exactly what we are going to do.

Perhaps, however, we need to reconsider some of the lessons our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents tried to teach us. There is some benefit to following rules. Standards not only help maintain order, they keep us safe. We mind our manners because it matters how we behave and how we treat other people. We don’t put our wants and desires first because it is important to actually care about other people first. We are taught delayed gratification because it keeps us fiscally stronger and avoids the irresponsibility of debt. We dress as well as we can for any given situation not to show off but because it is a sign of respect for those around us.

That last piece there, respect, is something we’ve all but lost. We want others to respect us, we’re all about people respecting who we are and what we do, but we give no one anything to respect in the first place. Respect does not exist when we don’t care what other people think. When we choose to dress like trash, we are effectually telling the rest of the world that we think they are trash. When all of our actions and motivations are self-centered on personal pleasure and gain, we are telling the rest of the world that we think they are inferior. We can copy and share the suicide hotline number on our Facebook profile over and over and over, but the proof of whether we actually care about the lives of other people lies in our all our actions, not our words.

How we dress, how we talk, the activities in which we directly participate, tell those around us whether we respect them as humans, part of our shared society. Dressing, speaking, and behaving appropriately says that we care, that we are willing to put respect for others above our own comfort and/or convenience. Without that visible demonstration of respect, all the words we might post on social media or anywhere else are meaningless.

We when dress, speak, and behave like slobs, we tell those around us that we really don’t give a shit about them. We say that our own comfort and perceived independence is more important than anything or anyone else. Ultimately, slobs don’t even respect themselves.

We can do better. We must do better. I don’t know about you, but I don’t care to be a part of a society of slobs.

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