G. Bruce Boyer contemplates contemporary society’s abandonment of formality and dignity in favor of “casualness,” i.e. self-indulgent comfort and the absence of effort.
In the early years of the nineteenth century there had been what fashion hisÂtorians have called the â€œGreat Masculine Renunciationâ€ in Western male dress, as men turned their collective backs on all the silks and satins, buckled shoes and powdered wigs of court dress, and assumed the Victorian black worsted suit and cotton shirt of bourgeois middle-class business attire and propriety. The theory, first popularized in 1930 by the psychologist J. C. FlÃ¼gel, attempted to account for the radical shift that men made to more sober attire after 1800, and the shift is usually seen as an expression of the triumph of the middle class, Âenlarging democracy, and the Industrial Revolution. A more ornate and chivalric ideal was replaced by the modest masculinity of a bourgeois gentleman in a democratic society. A gentlemanâ€™s clothes became more sober and standardized, his manners more reserved and proper. The very idea of a â€œgentlemanâ€ seems stuck in the nineteenth century.
At the end of the twentieth century, dress underwent another great change; call it the â€œTailored Renunciationâ€ or the â€œCasual Revolution.â€ Underlying it is not the triumph of one class but rather the loss among all classes of a sense of occasion. By â€œoccasionâ€ I mean an event out of the ordinary, a function other than our daily lives, an experience for which we take special care and preparation, at which we act and speak and comport ourselves Âdifferentlyâ€”events which could be called ritualistic in matters of Âpropriety and appearance. There used to be many of these events, social rituals that filled our non-working lives: weddings and funerals, going to church, restaurants, parties, and theaters. Meeting important people of various stripes, people who had greater social standing than we did, was an occasion for our parents and grandparents to dress up, and that included going to the doctorâ€™s office when you were sick, because the doctor was thought to be an important person worthy and deserving of that outward sign of respect. Respect for the event and those in attendance was what made the occasion special.
It can now be said that this sort of an outward sign or almost any of the older outward signs of ritual are considered pure snobbery. After all, wasnâ€™t the Edwardian Age the last time the really rich could hope to think that showing off their wealth in public display gave the poor a nice bit of entertainment and ray of sunshine in their drab lives?
But then, if these outward signs are socially discouraged today, what makes an occasion special? And how do we know? Can an event be an occasion if thereâ€™s no attempt to outwardly manifest it? ÂRitualized behavior of one sort or another may be considered an outward sign of our inward disposition. But how complete can this be if it is not expressed in our appearance? We need not agree with NicolÃ¡s GÃ³mez-DÃ¡vilaâ€™s claim that evening dress is the first step toward civilization to think that something has gone amiss. Is it possible to believe that when we now wear polo shirts, khakis, and hyper-designed athletic shoes to weddings, funerals, and graduations, itâ€™s a sign that we have forgotten how to enjoy the events by which we measure life?
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.