There has been a considerable shift in attitudes toward clothing in the last 70 years, a shift both enlightening and appalling.
In the ‘40s, all city dwelling men went to work in a hat and white shirt and tie.
Today only male office workers, and not all of them, wear shirts and ties. Women likewise wore dresses to work. There wasn’t a very wide variety of clothing back then; dress shirts were white, slacks were brown, grey or black and dresses were patterned and all of similar style and length.
Distinction was achieved by the level of cleanliness and the crispness of the ironing. In the ‘60s, there were still a handful of old-timer factory workers who went to work that way and changed into their work clothes in the factory locker room.
Photos of people on the streets of large cities back then reveal a mass of uniformly dressed men and women: hats, shirts, ties, dresses.
Today self-expression through clothes rules. Teenage girls go to the mall in pyjamas, adults wear sweat pants and T-shirts, people go to work dressed as casually as their bosses allow.
Ironing has all but disappeared, and if nothing needs to be ironed, then washing clothes becomes less important as well.
Today the care and attention paid to daily clothes once found in Canada or the U.S is found in places like Mexico or the Caribbean, where people are often obsessive about their clothes and cleanliness.
Children, leaving tiny cinder block houses to walk to school, are spotless in ironed shirts and dresses, their hair brushed and combed, their faces scrubbed clean.
On Sunday morning, along the dirt streets of small islands like Bequia or St. Lucia, children and adults stand waiting for their rides to church in immaculate clothes, the little girls invariably in blindingly white dresses, the boys rigid in the stiff white creases of their dress shirts.
The positive aspect of this sartorial shift is that self-expression often leads to very interesting and attractive innovations and styles. The negative aspect is that slovenliness and sloth are portrayed as forms of self-expression.
The lack of concern over style and appearance has also limited concern over fit. Tank tops, shorts and T-shirts that once were slim and snug, now can be found accentuating the rolls of flab that the wearer has accumulated over the last 10 years.
Stomachs, love handles and thighs frequently find their way into plain sight, squeezing out over the top of stretch pants, or bulging out from under beer shirts.
None of this should come as a surprise. Self-expression has long since superseded the notion of social decorum.
Those who wander the streets in swimming trunks or torn sweat pants or displaying large areas of unappealing anatomy (or appealing anatomy) cannot be criticized.
The flaw is in the eye of the beholder. Even observing that anatomies are appealing or unappealing is verboten. Anyone is free to dress anyway they wish; if you don’t like it, close your eyes.
We don’t really need a return to white shirts and modest dresses, but please, when you go out in public, remember that the self you are proudly expressing is a reflection of a larger social order to which we all belong.
– Jim Holtz is Weekender columnist and a former reporter for the Grand Forks Gazette