Have We Become A Nation Of Slobs?

When Sam Albert went to work for IBM in 1959, he assumed he'd be wearing a suit for the rest of his life. In fact, the same suit (single-breasted dark blue or gray worsted), over dark socks suspended rigidly from garters and a white shirt with a detachable collar starched to the stiffness of an annual-report cover. Feet planted in black wingtips, heads encased in steel-gray fedoras, the men of IBM achieved an uncanny uniformity, signifying not just business, but business machines. When Albert retired in 1989 as a top marketing executive, he counted 35 dress shirts in his closet, all of them white. So when he returned as a consultant to IBM's Armonk, N.Y., headquarters last week, wearing a dress shirt, suit and tie, he was prepared for anything but the sight of employees lined up for lunch in sweaters and slacks. "They looked at me," he says, "like they were asking, "Who is this guy with the suit on?' "

By rights, this age should mark the apotheosis of the suit. From Eastern Europe to Latin America, the broadcloth-backed armies of capitalism are on the march. Bustling Pacific Rim societies such as Singapore illustrate the perverse rule that the more inhospitable the climate of a given country, the more closely cinched the ties around the necks of the ruling class. America, for its part, has elected new leaders drawn from the ranks of small-town Southern professionals and college teachers for whom drab gray suits are expressive of their very nature, like fatigues for Castro. The last election was a landslide for the values the suit stands for: tradition, hierarchy, conformity and, well, money.

Yet even as the idea of the suit has triumphed, the garment itself is losing ground. The most recent sign came on Friday, Feb. 3, when IBM chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr. relaxed the inviolable, though unwritten, dress code for the 800 workers at the innermost sanctum of American capitalism. "Dress down" days, a phrase that first appeared in print barely five years ago, now affect, by some estimates, more than half of all U.S. office workers. Major banks and law firms are among the companies that lift the burden of neckties and nylons on employees in honor of the impending weekend; so is the Central Intelligence Agency. At least one governor, Oregon's John Kitzhaber, has proclaimed casual Fridays for himself, keeping his normal schedule in crisply pressed Levi's button-fly jeans. American men bought only around 13 million suits last year, down by 1.6 million since 1989, according to NPD Research, Inc. This implies that every adult male in the country buys a suit every seven years. Since theaverage American doubles his weight in that time, he presumably has long since stopped buttoning the last one.

Nor is this a phenomenon confined to office wear. You don't have to be very old to recall when middle-class men routinely wore a jacket and tie in public, even to a baseball game, or when women would put on a dress, hat, gloves, heels, nylons and jewelry to go to a department store. At a ball game today most people are grateful if the person in the next seat has on a shirt. Travel once called for dressing up -- one is, after all, representing oneself to strangers -- but now it seems to bring out people's worst fashion instincts. Bert Hand, chairman of the menswear company Hartmarx, identifies these as sweat pants and jogging suits. "Maybe," he says, "there should be a jogging-suit airline."

As tourists, Americans have given up pastel Bermuda shorts, only to replace them with Gap jeans, golf shirts, Nike jackets and $100 sneakers. These invite less ridicule but, if anything, even more contempt. Parisians assume not merely that Americans dress badly but that they don't even know the difference. The bright swirls and stripes of American sports logos seem especially glaring in the gloom of an 800-year-old church. "People are pretending that dress has no symbolic significance," says Judith Martin, the "Miss Manners" columnist, "but it does."

As for worship, Americans who long ago gave up wearing ties to services are starting to treat socks as optional. "We have lost the ideal of adult self-respect, and we're dressing like rebellious children," remarks the fashion historian Anne Hollander ("Sex and Suits"). "When you go to church, or to the opera, you now have the idea that you do not need to express respect in your costume -- that if you do, you somehow feel like one of the oppressed." Morticians are seeing more street clothes at funerals. That includes on corpses. Boston funeral director Arthur Hasiotis says families sometimes request casual burial wear for decedents who never put a tie around their necks while they were alive.

Slovenliness jeopardizes our precious national iconography. Presidents used to dress like presidents, not like a guy from the block, lumbering by every morning in shorts and a baseball cap. Movie stars used to dress like stars; Brad Pitt, arriving for the premiere of "Legends of the Fall" last year in a baggy gray sweater, could have been mistaken for the projectionist. Many people's memories of Jackie Onassis will forever bear the nagging footnote that the day after her death, Daryl Hannah showed up at her apartment in jeansand a T shirt, looking like shewas planning to clean out the closets. Hannah's controversial Rollerblading visit to Onassis just before she died was a watershed in casual history. Many people were offended, but Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came to her defense. "It seems to me that at the point of death one wants to affirm life," he says. "Rollerblading was an affirmation of life. Dressing mournfully is a pretty hollow ceremony."

Even gangsters don't dress up for work any longer. John Gotti showed that you can be an animal without dressing like one, but now mob power in New York has allegedly passed to Vincent (the Chin) Gigante, who wanders the streets of Little Italy in a bathrobe and bedroom slippers. Hollywood big shots used to dress like . . . well, never mind. But even on their worst days any three of them could have come up with more than the one necktie Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen mustered last October to announce the formation of their colossal new studio.

The photograph of the moguls at their press conference is worth deconstructing, because it shows the many nuances of slovenliness. Katzenberg is relatively neat in a tie and a dress shirt with sleeves rolled up -- a look that says, "OK, hey, I left my jacket in the office, you think starting a new studio is all I have to do today?" Geffen, known as "Mr. Gap," wears a shirt open at the collar and a casual vest, an outfit whose message is, "I can wear anything I want -- you got a problem with that?" But Spielberg is dressed in rumpled pants and a plaid shirt that might have come from JCPenney, a white blotch of undershirt showing at the collar -- a look that says only, "This was on the front hanger in my closet."

Of course, Spielberg, being Spielberg, can dress however he pleases. But that's the point: Americans used to want to dress up. Wearing a suit was a privilege of adulthood; Spielberg's outfit looks like something his mother might have dressed him in in fourth grade. One of the fastest-growing apparel categories is sweat suits, known in the trade as "fleece wear." Especially on airplanes, Americans love to curl up among their cuddly folds, like oversize babies, surrounded by the comforting sensations of infancy.

Comfort, of course, is the one unanswerable argument in favor of casual dressing. No one bothers putting on a suit or high heels to work at home, certainly. IBM's long-suffering employees of the 1950s didn't just sit at their desks in starched collars and garters; they rode to work in them on stifling buses or subways. You couldn't pay people enough to do that today -- not, anyway, once they heard about how Lester Brown, president of WorldWatch Institute, works all summer in neat walking shorts. The other advantage of casual dress is that it is cheaper than suits -- except, of course, for workers who may already have a closet full of suits, and find they now have to buy a bunch of sweaters as well. "Not having to wear nylons," an IBM worker in Atlanta told her boss, "is like getting a raise."

But comfort and economy are nothing new. What has changed is the maturing of the first generation that was allowed to wear blue jeans to high school. The formative moment for today's leaders, according to fashion editor Alan Millstein, was their first glimpse of a classmate's rear end in tight Levi's. "That was the ultimate sex symbol, the 501s," Millstein says, explaining that the experience permanently turned them away from baggy suits and dresses.

This is also a generation that defined itself by rebellion. Some of the earliest acts of student activism were directed at dress codes. For many people in their 30s and 40s, going without a suit is still a step on the road to self-actualization. Bart Kosko, a 34-year-old computer scientist, began his career in the aerospace industry, where a suit and tie was a badge of loyalty in the cold war. When he came to the University of Southern California in 1988 as an associate professor in "neural fuzzy logic," he began to question his old values, including what was in his closet. "I asked myself: "Do you have the courage to dress as you please?' Was I afraid of what people think?" Over time Kosko pared his outfit to the irreducible minimum of tank top and shorts, something that would have been literally inconceivable a generation ago. In the 1950s a suit was not a lifestyle choice; it was just what men wore, unless they were manual laborers. "There was a much narrower view of the world," says Boston University sociologist Bernard Phillips. "You didn't step outside of your role. The role dominated you."

It is also no coincidence that suits and ties became dispensable in the 1980s, just as people started seeing billionaires in khaki pants. High-tech start-up companies were notorious for being populated by overgrown college boys wandering the halls in socks, shorts and T shirts. "The first time I interviewed here there was a woman in bare feet and overalls with one strap unbuttoned," says Cindy Wilson of Velocity, a San Francisco multimedia company. The absence of ties is still linked in people's minds with creativity, imagination and $50 million Initial Public Offerings. "Your look is entrepreneurial when you dress down," says Timberland "wardrobe consultant" Barbara Seymour, using the hottest new catchphrase in fashion. "You can really own your own look."

Of course, not everyone wants to look "entrepreneurial." In Dallas, where the chic thing is to look as if you already have all the money in the world, " "casual' means you don't bring a gift," says Dallas Morning News columnist Maryln Schwartz. "A friend of mine called and said, "I'm having people over for takeout,' and I'm thinking, you know, jeans. I go there and she was wearing pants, but they were Chanel pants."

But wearing a $1,200 outfit to eat chop suey at home is mere decadence. For sheer panache in dressing up, you can't beat a middle-class black church in the South. For generations church was the only institution where Southern blacks were allowed to dress up. On a recent Sunday the congregation arrived at Sardis Baptist in Birmingham, Ala., as if hoping to knock God's eyes out. The men wore immaculate black vested suits, French-cuffed shirts and top hats, the women . . . let's see: a formal black dress with matching blazer, saucer-shaped onyx earrings and a gold choker, a blue-black rhinestone-trimmed hat whose bobbing feathers stretched almost to the wearer's nose and, oh yes, a full-length black mink coat, on 53nb-year-old Laquita Bell, executive director of the Urban League of Birmingham. "You have to go to a little more trouble when you go to the house of the Lord," says Bell modestly. At around the same time, at First Baptist in a suburb north of Atlanta, a predominantly white congregation sauntered into the pews in jogging suits, jeans and sweaters. "It really doesn't matter what you wear," says Margaret Sulpy, strolling toward the "worship center" (a converted warehouse) in a pink and white warm-up suit. "The Lord don't care, as long as you come."

There it is, in a nutshell, the philosophic question that everyone from the chairman of IBM to Daryl Hannah has to wrestle with: is "dressing down" a more democratic and authentic way of life, or a sign that we just can't get it together in the morning? Robert Goldberg, a senior research fellow at Brandeis University, has noticed the curious phenomenon that two people meeting for a business deal on a Friday will each put on a suit as a token of respect, even if it's dress-down day in their respective offices. To him, this signifies that the whole concept is flawed, because why should one's own co-workers be any less deserving of the minimal effort it takes to put on a necktie? More fundamentally, are clothes mere vanities, or do they express something essential about how we view ourselves and society? "In this country we say, "To heck with facades, we have to have the truth'," Hollander says. "We have our Puritan Protestant ideals telling us that being vain is wicked. All this we have internalized hopelessly so that good people cannot wear earrings, they have to wear running shoes."

A lot is riding on the answers to these questions, because the fashion industry has ingeniously turned the "dress down" phenomenon into a way to sell people even more clothes -- a new wardrobe just for Fridays. To the cotton industry, casual wear is the greatest boon since the Civil War. Eddie Bauer, the manufacturer of rugged outdoorsy sportswear, is starting two new lines to meet the demand for garments in such esoteric categories as "formal casual," "business alternative" and "dress sportswear." Hush Puppies, a company that has an obvious stake in casual wear, has produced a video guide to "the growing trend toward the unstructured." "The shift creates new challenges for human-resources professionals," the video notes cheerfully. "The human-resources department has got to do a better job of communicating what they mean by a Henley sweater or stretch leggings." Last year this kind of communication helped Hush Puppies sell the rest of the country 37 percent more shoes.

And something else is at stake, the very face, if not the soul, of America. Fashion usually proceeds in cycles, and so may the fashion for dressing down. But there is also a long-range trend toward informality that may prove unstoppable. What we know as the three-piece business suit was known at the turn of the century as the "lounge suit," a casual garment for wearing at home or in the country. A banker or senator would ordinarily wear a frock coat to his office. In "Sex and Suits," Hollander notes that in the middle of the last century, when formal dress consisted of white tie and tails, the bewigged footmen at a ball were dressed in the gentleman's costume of a century earlier. Today, the headwaiter in a fancy restaurant may wear a dinner jacket as he greets patrons dressed in business clothes. If the pattern continues, the ordinary suit may be fated to become a ceremonial garment, worn mostly by waiters in restaurants whose patrons wear . . . better not to think about it.

Join the Discussion