This blog notes, as we've stated many times before, changes over history. Specifically, it supposedly looks at the 1890 to about 1920 time frame, but we also frankly hardly ever stick to that. Oh well.
Business men (lawyers) in the early 20th Century. These men aren't dressed up, they would have been dressed in this fashion every day. Given the boater style hat worn by the man on the left, this photograph must have been taken in summer.
A lot of times the observations that take place here are based on what we can observe in historic documents and photographs. But on this topic, which I just posted on in a way in a post on school clothing standards, and which I've flat out posted on before, I've actually observed a change, and I'm really starting to observe in an ever increasing fashion now. As I noted in that post, the clothing policy that's in place now, was the same on in place 40 years ago. Having said that, public standards of dress really have changed, and changed a very great deal.
On that, I'll note that it's one thing to say that we can look at photos of the past, which we can, and note that clothing standards have declined. It's another to be able to say that you personally recall it. And its something else to say both.
This is brought on, really, as I've been in a lot of airports recently, although I've also been noticing it in other contexts as well. If there's a place that's better suited to observe a cross section of Americans than the airport, I don't know what it is. At the airport, and more specifically a big city airport, people of every class and station are present. And man, have our dress standards declined.
Denver International Airport. If a person enjoyed people watching (which isn't my favorite thing to do), this would be a good place to do it.
I'm not anywhere near old enough to be able to recall an era when airline passengers wore suit and tie, and the equivalent for women, but that has been something that's been widely observed. I've seen that explained on the basis that air travel was special, and people accordingly dress up.
I don't believe it. They dressed up for the train and bus too.
Sailor boarding Western Airlines C-46 in the early 1950s, from the Casper International Airport.
Cross country train passengers, on rest break, Kearney Nebraska, 1944
People were, quite frankly, just better dressed, and everywhere.
In many instances, they were more formally dressed. Men clearly wore suit and tie much more often than they do now, well into the 20th Century. "Business attire" was suit and tie. Now, that is not the case and the term is probably unknown to many. Men's suits have almost become relegated to a very narrow set of occupations and occasions, and even with them its declining. I've attended a mediation, for example, fairly recently where one of the attending attorneys did not wear suit and tie, and was dressed in "business casual". Not all that long ago that would have been simply unthinkable. For that matter, we used to always wear at least a tie in a deposition but now, more often than not, that's not the case. I went to one deposition fairly recently where one of the attorneys was wearing sandals, something that just would not have occurred a decade ago.
Secretary (who remain among the best dressed office workers) in the 1940s.
It isn't just lawyers, of course, who wore business suits. The number of men who wore suits well into the 1950s, every day, is hard to grasp by modern standards. Men who worked in offices wore suits, and many others who worked indoors, or just worked in cities, did as well. Almost every professional wore a suit every day, but then so did men who had "business" positions. Suit and tie, or at least coat and tie, were the norm.
Typical office, 1902. The female secretary would have actually been somewhat unusual at this time.
This standard of dress for the employed adult remained common all the way through the 1950s, and began to decline during the 1960s. Probably the cultural revolution that commenced about that time had a large influence, and it actually influenced business wear at the time, which didn't go away, but did start to modify. Still, into the 1970s I can distinctly recall professionals wearing ties every day. By the 1980s, some classes of them, such as doctors and dentists, no longer did.
When I started practicing law in 1990 suits and ties were already not common for most office workers most places. That era had passed. But they were frequently seen being worn by lawyers. They still are, but that's because lawyers, along with a very few other professions, still have coat and tie or at least suit and tie as parts of their "uniform". But a big change has occurred even here. As noted above, when I started out, not only would you see them frequently in the office, and worn everyday by older lawyers, you'd always see them in depositions. Now, that's not the case. I've attended a fair number of depositions recently in which the lawyers at them were wearing blue jeans and dress shirts, but no ties. Something that would never have occurred in the past. I still normally wear a tie to a deposition, and except when its hot, I'll often wear one every day. Maybe that's a call back to the old standard of professionalism, or the old uniform, or maybe that's just because I'm old.
I will say that by and large women in offices are much more routinely nicely dressed than men. Their "uniform" was always more vague, most men couldn't describe it, and perhaps that's allowed them somehow to retain more professional dress. Anyhow, generally they are more professionally dressed.
This doesn't men that men in offices are slovenly, but it does mean that as a rule we're now fairly casual. Jeans and semi dress shirts are the common business attire in many places now, but not all. In big cities, at least, the uniforms seems to hang on to a much greater degree in professional offices. But, in some ways, the old business standard is now really only common among lawyers, real estate agents, and newscasters.
It's not that I'm any different, however. I'll note that while I'll often wear khaki trousers, button down shirt, and tie, I too wear jeans a lot more than I used to. So perhaps even in noting this, I'm somewhat hypocritical.
It's not just that dress is more casual, however, but it's less real, in some ways, or odder, or perhaps more in the nature of an attempted personal statement than every before. Men and women rarely dressed in a fanciful manner to the extent they do now. Some did, to be sure. Some occupations have always worn very distinctive and somewhat ornamental clothing, and starting in the 1920s the young started to definitely wear clothing that tended to mark them out from their elders. In earlier years, for that matter, "dandies" were young men who dressed fancifully, and were noted for it. The 1920s saw flapper attire, for example, and raccoon skin coats. So the trend, perhaps, dates back at least that far, if not further, but it's of a bit different character somehow.
Mary LaFollette, daughter of Senator LaFollette, wearing a raccoon coat at at time when they were associated with avant guarde youth for some reason. Ms. LaFollette would have been in her 30s at the time this photo was taken, making her choice of coat unusual.
Flapper, 1922, in winter (note the rubber boots).
Zoot suiters dancing, 1940s. The Zoot Suit exaggerated the features of the business suit, almost recalling the 19th Century frock coat. Bigger, baggier, and bigger overall, they were considered sort of offensive to some, for some reason. The uniform of rebellion in the late 1930s, the style was particularly associated with blacks and Hispanics at the time, which might be why white teens affecting the look were regarded as rebellious. The style has hung on to a small extent in some Pacific Coast Hispanic communities.
A full blown suspension of any concept of standard dress, which is sort of what we're seeing, is actually very recent, however. There was prior youthful clothing affectation, but in order to actually dress to shock, there has to be some standard to measure against. That's increasingly no longer the case. At the airport, once again, it's clear that there are no standards, well actually very few standards, apply to Americans in dress at all.
At the Denver International Airport this past week I observed all manners of dress, from very formal, to extremely sloppy. Some men were dressed in suits, probably headed to meetings or to court. Oilfield workers in the uniforms of their trade. Many men and women in t-shirts and jeans. Some young men seeking to show their avant guard status in the uniform of their avant guard class, impossibly tight jeans, shirt, and stubble. And women in all matters of dress from the 19th Century down to nearly no dress at all.
And that brings up a question.
Does that matter?
Well, it might.
Casual is one thing, and we've seen that around for quite awhile. But all clothing sends some sort of message, and the question therefore would become is casual appropriate for everything, and is what we're now seeing something a bit beyond casual. Let's look at the second question first.
Going back to the airport, I was walking down a concourse when, going the other way, I observed a young woman struggling with a bag. I don't know her age, and I'm frankly not very good at judging the age of young people. If pressed, I'd guess that she was maybe 17, which given my general inability in this area, means that she was probably at least 16 and perhaps 22. Who knows. Although here too, that makes a difference.
It makes a difference as her dress was, quite frankly, indecent. It would have been appropriate for a profession in which she was offering her wares for sale, which again is to say indecent, but it certainly wasn't decent for being in common company such as getting on an airplane. I was, quite frankly, embarrassed for her, which tends to be the reaction of somebody who knows that the actual person isn't embarrassed themselves, but sure should be. If she was 17, her parents shouldn't have let her out of the house dressed as she was. If she wasn't, her parents should be ashamed on how things are seemingly turning out. So should she.
But, the remarkable thing is that this is no longer remarkable. It's hard to get through DIA without running into some woman who appears to be on display. And it's also hard to get through DIA without running into a younger male who is also on display, which at least for men of my generations is also an embarrassing thing to see.
For that matter, however, it's been equally embarrassing to go by any of the local middle schools in recent years, dropping kids off, and having to witness what some very young teens manage to get out of the house wearing. Not all by any means, but enough to notice. What are their parents thinking? It actually seems to be better by the time they get to high school, having perhaps wised up a bit in the intervening couple of years.
Now, I don't want to suggest that every single woman in DIA, or anywhere else, is dressed in this fashion. Not at all. On the same trip there were women looking for a plane that were dressed in the type of dress that Amish or Hutterite women dress in. So you see everything. But the change here isn't so much that we see them, as we have come to accept that young women can appear anywhere in what would have been regarded as indecent, and young men can appear in clothing that would have been regarded as perhaps more suitable for young women, not all that long ago. Quite a change.
On the women, and I'll expound on this separately, the problem is that this really is an offense to their dignity. Once on display, they're an object, and I can't imagine why anyone would want to be regarded in that fashion. The clothing goes from "look at me", to offering something for nothing. And by doing that, they're no longer going to be judged for anything else, not even really their looks, but rather in what they suggest about their conduct. And as its common, it also suggests that's common conduct. Not a good thing at all.
Well, does anyone care at all, if it does matter?
This is a topic that gets a surprising amount of discussion in some quarters, although perhaps not in the quarters which it should. For one thing, its a surprisingly common topic on certain sites where religious conservatives hang out, as some there feel that a certain level of dress is appropriate at least in Church. On one such site, for example, a quote from St. Francis de Sales was recently posted, in which he noted, regarding appropriate dress in general, the following.
St. Paul expresses his desire that all Christian women should wear “modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety;”—and for that matter he certainly meant that men should do so likewise.
Now, modesty in dress and its appearances depends upon the quality, the fashion and the cleanliness thereof. As to cleanliness, that should be uniform, and we should never, if possible, let any part of our dress be soiled or stained. External seemliness is a sort of indication of inward good order, and God requires those who minister at His Altar, or minister in holy things, to be attentive in respect of personal cleanliness.
As to the quality and fashion of clothes, modesty in these points must depend upon various circumstances, age, season, condition, the society we move in, and the special occasion. Most people dress better on a high festival than at other times; in Lent, or other penitential seasons, they lay aside all gay apparel; at a wedding they wear wedding garments, at a funeral, mourning garb; and at a king’s court the dress which would be unsuitable at home is suitable.
Always be neat, do not ever permit any disorder or untidiness about you. There is a certain disrespect to those with whom you mix in slovenly dress; but at the same time avoid all vanity, peculiarity, and fancifulness. As far as may be, keep to what is simple and unpretending–such dress is the best adornment of beauty and the best excuse for ugliness.
St. Peter bids women not to be over particular in dressing their hair. Every one despises a man as effeminate who lowers himself by such things, and we count a vain woman as wanting in modesty, or at all events what she has becomes smothered among her trinkets and furbelows. They say that they mean no harm, but I should reply that the devil will contrive to get some harm out of it all.
For my own part I should like my devout man or woman to be the best dressed person in the company, but the least fine or splendid, and adorned, as St. Peter says, with “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit.” St. Louis said that the right thing is for every one to dress according to his position, so that good and sensible people should not be able to say they are over-dressed, or younger gayer ones that they are under-dressed. But if these last are not satisfied with what is modest and seemly, they must be content with the approbation of the elders.
While I suppose that some could take exception with some of this, all in all its pretty good advice and it applies in the secular world as well, which may be why dress is also a topic that shows up on certain male "manliness" sites. And no wonder. One of the odd trends in dress over the past seventy years is that male dress, among youth, trended towards being exaggerated blue collar in the 1950s, and then just counter culture in the 60s, to both in the 70s and 80s, but then sort of slowly slid towards the effeminate in the 1990s. Male dress among the hip and cool is much more effeminate now than it was in prior decades, although that's a trend that's happened in some past eras as well. No doubt there's a reason for it, but I don't know (or even really care much), what it is, other that that if a guy has to put a lot of work into looking a sort of femaleish disheveled, they have too much time on their hands. Oddly, at the same time, there's been no trend for women to look more feminine, although there's definitely been a trend encouraging them to put themselves more on display, which benefits only men really, and not women at all. Balancing it out on the male end, a bit, there's now a counter trend in the "hipster" category where men dress sort of lumberjack like and grow their beards out Russian Old Believer like. I actually kind of like the trend.
I should note, in all of this, that I probably have no real room to act as a social critic here. Well, maybe I do, but not one that can't be criticized. I was part of the great t-shirt wearing male mass of the late 1970s and 1980s and I didn't even own a suit until I was in my last year, I think, of my undergraduate studies, when I got one in order to attend the wedding of the first of my high school friends to get married (odd to think it was that late, we'd been out of high school for five years at the time). I didn't learn how to even tie a tie until basic training at Ft. Sill, and I didn't routinely wear one until I became a lawyer. So I wasn't exactly an advertisement for Brooks Brothers (although I've owned a couple of their very fine suits). Prior to 1986, I was more likely to be clad in a t-shirt and jeans than anything else, even in winter. Starting around 1984 or so I started to be afflicted with being old all winter long, which I still am, and started wearing heavy shirts in the winter, which outside of work I still do. Getting wiser to things after that, I usually wear a long sleeve shirt even in the summer, and just roll up the sleeves when its hot, particularly if I do outdoor work, thereby turning full circle as I knew to do that even when I was a teen and wasn't.
Anyhow, looking like a cowhand on my free time for most of my life doesn't qualify me to seemingly offer sartorial commentary. And it probably particularly does not as, referring back to the entry immediately above, being a Catholic in the upper plains means I'm part of that odd demographic that doesn't tend to dress up for Church, so that whole debate is sort of outside of my experience. That may seem odd, but most Catholics in this region, perhaps because the churches are either hot or cold depending upon the season, or because everyone came from a blue collar or agricultural background at one time, tend not to dress up for Church at all. They still don't either, including myself. Only a few people do, and by my observation if you happen to attend a Spanish language Mass, you'll see the best dressed people as Mexican immigrants tend to dress nicely, but in a nice rural fashion for the men.
An interesting question here might be, what happened? And I think the answer might be different for men as opposed to women. What I'll note first, however, is that men who have a distinct outdoors job tend to suspend fashion and wear the dress appropriate for that job. Oilfield workers still dress for that vocation. Cowboys dress like cowboys on and off the ranch. Soldiers tend to look like soldiers no matter what they are doing. And that's part of the answer to this, I think.
Oilfield roughnecks of the 1940s. Roughnecks today would look much the same, except that now they wear "FRs", Fire Resistant Clothing, and metal helmets have been replaced by plastic.
Modern cowboys, whose general appearance hasn't really changed much for well over a century.
In an earlier era, when every vocation was more "real", if you will, or rather perhaps when more men worked in manual vocations, there was little interest in fanciful dress. For those who worked in town, at one time they desire seemed to be to show that they'd achieved an indoor status. Indeed, some have noted that the standards of dress remained remarkably high in the 1920s and 1930s, first when many Americans started moving off of farms and into the cities, and secondly during the Great Depression, as that was the way of showing that you'd overcome your past. The standards then carried on until they had a reason, or at least there was some sort of cause, or lack of a reason to change.
Let's look at this a bit more closely.
To start with, something worth noting is that the number of clothes we now have, and the ease of washing them as well, far exceeds anything from even the relatively recent past, and certain at the point we need to start this story, which probably needs to go back at least until the 19th Century, if not further back. We'll start in the second half of the 1800s.
At that time the majority of Americans were rural in character and the majority of those who were not worked at some sort of trade. Shopkeepers, businessmen and professionals existed, but they were nowhere near the percentage of the population that they now are. And that has an impact on our story.
Most Americans, even mid century, were clothed in clothes that had been locally made, if in fact not made at home by a family seamstress. And they didn't have much in the way of a change of clothing either. Old recounts of people at the time often note rural people wearing "homespun", that is wool clothing made from cloth weaved at home. "Homespun" was almost a synonymy for rustic, or primitive. When somebody, even now, talks about "homespun tales", they hearken back to that meaning, derived from the type of cloth.
Professionals in the cities, and for that matter the wealthy, didn't dress that way. All their clothes were tailored from manufactured cloth. They were visibly different.
Manufactured clothing began to come in during the mid 19th Century, but even at that, while it became widely worn, it didn't look exactly the same as well tailored clothing and, also, the average person had very few changes of clothing. The average farmer, a major demographic section in the US, might have just a couple of clothes including a jacket that he might want to wear on occasions calling for more formal wear. People were conscious of this, of course, but it also meant that any average male was not going to invest in clothing that couldn't serve more than one purpose, and none of those items were going to have "Jack's Bar & Grill" blazoned across them.
In this environment, the clothing worn by people in towns and cities, particularly in the 1900s forward, really sent a message, and that's important to note. Also important to note, up into the 1950s, it was possible to move careers of any type, without a formal education, fairly easily.
Going back to a typical American, let's say of 1900, we can see how this entire process has worked, to some degree, fairly easily. If we take an American of 18 years old, who has grown up on a Mid Western farm, we'll be looking at a fairly typical American. He's probably within easy traveling distance, but real distance, from some mid sized or even big city, and his education, which would have stopped at high school (if it went that far) would have been sufficiently good to enter an office occupation of the era without additional education. So, if he's the second third son of a family of five, in 1900, he'd be looking at world in which acquiring a farm of his own would be somewhat difficult and so, perhaps, he'd look to the city.
Going into the city, he'd be wearing the sort of rough clothes of his background, and he'd be conscious of it. That wouldn't keep him, however, from finding a clerk's job in some office. Let's say an insurance office.
Boy clerk in a law office, early 20th Century.
Our subject, let's say, acquires a job in the office, but he looks like a "hay seed" and he knows it. Probably the fist thing he'll buy is a set of clothes at Sears or Montgomery Ward, which will include a couple of shirts capable of taking a starched collar, and a suit. Probably just one suit frankly. And a couple of ties. Now he'll look the part of his job, and that would have been the uniform of his office. That it would have been the uniform is clear. And it would have been that, as this office and its owners would want to have made it plain that they were professionals, like lawyers and doctors in town. And the lawyers and doctors in town would have dressed that way because they could, and also to point out that they were successful, not merely people who had drifted in from the country, even if in fact they had drifted in from the country.
African American lawyer, 1940s.
So, back to our hero, after a few years he'd have moved up to a better position in the little company, and his clothes would have approved a little bit over the same course of time. All the while he would have traveled back and forth to the farm, and he'd want them to know that even though he was the middle son, he was doing fine. Probably after about a decade he'd have married, and chances are the girl he would have married would have had a similar story of some sort. We're now in the early 10s. By the 20s, he'd have had a family, and by the 30s, chances are that one of his kids would be entering the business. That son would enter it, in the 30s, with this standard of dress solidly in place and reinforced by the disaster of the Great Depression.
American novelist, Winston Churchill (not the British politician). Probably early 1920s. Note how formal he appears, even though this is actually a fairly informal summer suit for the period. Not too many writers would be dressed like this now, just to go to town.
It wouldn't be until the 50s, or even really the 60s ,when things would begin to change, and our example demonstrates in part why. By that time, the original message being conveyed would have been lost. By that time, the distinction between past life and current, and urban and rural, would have been nearly completely lost. At best, a young man of the early 60s would know of his rural ancestors, but those would tend to be just stories.
And you can play this out in any number of ways, and locations as well. For example, you can easily imagine, for example, a Sicilian immigrant coming in as a child, say perhaps about 15 years of age, alone, into the United States via Ellis Island at this time. He'd go right to work for some Italian enterprise in New York and even at that tender age he'd shed his immigrant peasant clothing for something more urban as quickly as he could. By the 20s he might own that or another enterprise, and by the 50s his grand children would be completely Americanized and only barely recall his immigrant past. And so on.*
Moreover, at that point, education had gone from being uncommon post high school to really common, which came on in a major way following World War Two. A sense of entitlement crept in. Looked at that way, our new subject, say in 1965, would have little connection with his great grandfather's life of 1900, and wouldn't even grasp the concept that this fellow had regarded himself as really lucky to get a job clerking in an insurance office. Chance are that he'd look at his father insurance agency as dull and boring, and not something for an educated fellow like himself. And why should he wear a boring business suit, the armor of conformity? It shouldn't be presumed that the change came in really quickly, as that would be wholly incorrect, but change did come in and over about a 30 year period the former standards on men's wear more or less disappeared. Women's dress, oddly enough. Women's dress changed very substantially as well, but to a surprisingly smaller extent in the business context.**
While this was going on, something else was also occurring that would impact dress as well, and as its part of the story, it has to be added in. It wasn't just that people moved away from a rural or blue collar background, and indeed that was only partially true. But an increase in wealth after World War Two had a major impact on dress.
As we've already noted, people in the early half of the 20th Century tended to have fewer clothes. Indeed, my father noted to me once, while I was buying a suit, that a good thing to get is a suit with two pairs of pants. Apparently the last time he'd bought a suit, which had been appreciable time earlier, that was still an option, and apparently it had been a common option. The reason for that was that people repeated their clothing frequently, and having two pairs of pants for one suit made that much more easy to do. I've never seen this option offered for the sale of a suit, so as they became less common this option must have died out.
Anyhow, prior to the end of World War Two people just had fewer changes of clothes. But the war brought in cotton clothing to an extent that hadn't existed before, and cotton clothing is easily washable. And the big increase in wealth that was brought on by the end of World War Two and the boom in the consumer economy meant that people could afford to do that.
Not only could they afford to do that, moreover, but the degree to which clothes needed to have an immediate utility declined fairly substantially with the rise of urban centers.
Prior to the war, nearly ever teen had worked in some capacity, and nearly everyone, even the wealthy, had done at least a little manual labor. Clothing, therefore, wasn't typically ornamental as it couldn't be, that much. But after the war the extent to which the young were employed only by self option increased.
Concurrent with that, however, was the fact of the recent war itself. The youngest of those who were conscripted for World War Two were only 28 years old in 1955 (although the oldest were 57 that same year). There was a large societal experience, therefore, with the war and also with blue collar labor, which had been an important aspect of the war. As already noted, college availability massively increased following the war, but not everyone aspired to that. With an increase in wealth, and an accordingly large increase in youthful leisure, for the first time you really had "rebellious youth".
Now, some youthful rebellion has always been around, but the character at this time was really different. Youth in rebellion, before World War Two, had really been sort of a college demographic thing. It had popped up in the 1920s, following World War One, and it had expressed it self in one rebellious set in the jazz age culture of that time. I.e, flappers, etc. In another set, it actually expressed itself with the surprisingly large flirtation with Communism among college youth at that time, which oddly enough also had a sartorial expression, particularly with women. Whitaker Chamber noted that at that time it was easy to spot a Communist woman as they all had the same bobbed hair style, including that affected by his wife when he met her (although she wasn't a Communist, but a different type of Socialist revolutionary). Some of this continued on into the 1940s, sufficiently enough that Bill Mauldin made it the subject of one his early post World War Two cartoons.
But rebellion at the late teen stage was truly new, and it was informed by the recent war and the heroic status of the American working class. So, armed with surplus cash, it affected a costume reflecting that, blue jeans, white t-shirts, and leather jackets, all stuff that recalled blue collar work or Army life.
That in turn was the situation when the turbulent 1960s came on, and everything that came on with it occurred. And that gave us the onset of the decline in clothing standards. It certainly did not complete it, however. That took some time. But the decline in the standards in youthful attire were pretty well established by the 1970s, and the pushing of the boundaries in female attire were in swing by then as well. By the 80s the decline had firmly set in, and by the 1990s the idea that a person should advertise themselves in some fashion was pretty well entrenched.***
Now, then, the second part of the question. Does it matter.
It probably actually does.
Wes, we answered that a bit above, but we'll conclude with it again. While perhaps it really shouldn't matter, it seems to.
A funny thing about clothing is that it appears to send a message no matter what a person wants to do. And the fact that it does it appears to cross all cultures at all time, and to be understood by all, even out of context. It's not really too hard to look back and portrayals of earlier eras and determine who was formally dressed, who was not, and who was a dandy, and to even draw conclusions about those people accordingly. People seem to do it instinctively.
That doesn't mean that people should dress the same way at all times. Fashions do indeed change, but perhaps the basic messages clothing conveys remain remarkably unchanging. People who affect a certain fashion due to their occupation generally give off the message that they're in it, and usually they're proud of that. "Real" clothing sends a message. Dressing to a fashion that intentionally sends some avant guard message, or worse yet attempts to co-opt the real, usually just looks silly over time. The "dandies" of one era look silly later on. People, whether they should or not, will look at women's fashion with a sharper eye than men's, and men who work really hard to achieve a certain trendy look usually look silly even in their own era, at least a bit. So, perhaps, the really exposed view of fashion some women are taking now ought to be backed off, and maybe everyone ought to pay a little more attention to the basic rules, which doesn't mean that everyone needs to go out and buy a frock coat or something.
Of course, a person could start with themselves. I wore blue jeans to work most of last week, something that would never have occurred in most law office even twenty years ago.
*While citations to movies are always risky, this is an area in which some of what's described here can really be demonstrated via movies, and in two ways. One is movies set in their own times that simply accidentally demonstrate the conditions of the day, and another is movies set in a period that do a really good example of illustrating the same thing. Movies do have to be approach cautiously, however, as even some really respected films really blow it in these regards.
As to the first category, a movie that captures the relationship between presentation of success and dress in American culture prior to World War Two is the film White Heat. A person wouldn't think of it in that fashion, but if you look at it carefully, it demonstrates this very well. All of the central characters in White Heat are really bad, but they dress increasingly well as the film goes on. They're gangsters, but they don't dress gansta. Why not? They're blue collar and they want to look like they've made it, in the context of their times. And they do.
In the second category, two really good films in this category are The Godfather and The Godfather, Part Two. Part Two does a super job of present dress over time, all the way from about 1900 up to the early 1960s, and the second example I've given above is more or less given in the film, albeit in the context of the "family business" being a criminal enterprise.
**Again, to use well done film as an example, this is interestingly illustrated on the big and small screen.
In terms of movies, the degree to which suit or suit jackets held on is illustrated by the police dramas The French Connection and Shaft. Both show the trend away from it, but they also show how it was hanging on. Popeye Doyle and Shaft are sort of hip and cool, in context, but they're surprisingly well dressed as well, in a way.
On the small screen, popular television series of the 1970s show this as well. Shows like Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart show people in office settings in which their dress, while contemporary for the times, is much more conservative, as a rule, than presently, and coat and tie hang on.
***Citing a film again, the view of this sort of change, and the degree to which that view was naive, is perhaps well set out in the film The Graduate.
In that film, Dustin Hoffman plays a recent college graduate trying to find his way, with his parent's generation portrayed as hypocritical. But with an informed sense of history, and now looking back on what is now a very old film, the Hoffman character doesn't come across so well. He's a privileged youth with a college education, among a generation that had to fight for everything it ever had. So as a revolutionary, he's sort of a slacker.