The proverbial visitor from Mars—or perhaps I should say Neptune, since the only intelligent life known to exist on Mars today is robotic, crawling in and out of craters as it frenziedly snaps digital photographs like an ordinary terrestrial tourist—anyhow, the proverbial visitor from outer space would never guess from visiting Earth’s Western and Westernizing cultures that Westerners are the wealthiest and most sexed-up people in the history of the human race. Never guess, I mean, from their clothing, as well as from other aspects of their outward appearance.
Oversexed and undressed have a certain logical connection with each other. Yet varying degrees of nudity, except at Malibu beach and along the Riviera, are probably not what would most impress the intergalactically traveled Neptunian upon his first contact with Western society. More likely he would be struck by the ubiquitous state of underdress, aimed less at immodesty than at a calculated slovenliness. How could the brilliant psychologist, the most learned sociologist, possibly explain for him how people who devote 90 percent of their attention to looking good, smelling good, and feeling good to members of the opposite sex, and have the financial resources to do it, are satisfied every morning to climb into the same drab, dreary, sexless uniform they have worn every day (Sundays included) for the past weeks and months—blue jeans, message T-shirt, running shoes like spongy club feet, ball cap, and, for women, a top, apparently shrunk in the wash, that fails by three inches to reach the waistline? In an era when mall shopping has become the principal pastime of an entire culture, and obscenely expensive outfits, accessories, and jewelry are advertised and sold to people who can afford to buy them, nobody—almost nobody—“dresses,” as we say, including the rich. While I hesitate to go where psychology, sociology, and the ladies’ magazines fear to tread, the conundrum has been so much on my mind over the past couple of decades that I can’t resist offering a few speculations of my own.
We should recognize that today’s sartorial conventions are, as I say, wholly unprecedented in human history. Before the 1960’s, women, men, and children above the age of seven or eight took pleasure as well as satisfaction in owning—and wearing—the best clothes they could afford. European settler families in the wilds of the Americas in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries delighted in dressing in what they called their Sunday best for weekly church services or simply going to town, as readers of Laura Wilder’s books know and a wealth of contemporary sketches and daguerreotypes prove. (Their indigenous neighbors, also, never missed a chance to display their ritual finery in elaborate native ceremonies.) They were following a tradition of tens of centuries, in which Europeans from every culture across Eurasia celebrated a multiplicity of Catholic feast days by putting aside their rough peasant garb and artisans’ smocks and dressing for display, in pale but hardly pathetic imitation of their aristocratic masters and mistresses. The ancient world, too, appreciated dress, as any schoolboy used to know, though the Greeks cultivated a classical elegance in preference to the more luxuriant tastes of the Romans after the passing of the Republic, while the Oriental dynasties are synonymous with sartorial extravagance. On another continent, the African tribes plumed themselves with ostrich feathers and subjected their ears, lips, and noses to the most painful mutilation and deformation for the sake of profuse show. A quarter-century ago I read a very informative book called The History of Clothing, or some such title, from which I could draw other examples had I not unfortunately misplaced the volume. I can, however, cite my personal experience as a 12-year student at the Trinity School, which was in my day a boys-only institution in Manhattan. Beginning in about the seventh grade, my classmates and I began to develop a keen and discriminating appreciation for one another’s neckties, shirts, and shoes. The necktie, like the display handkerchief, was required wear from the fifth grade on, and so, of course, were the school blazer and grey flannel pants. Any boy caught tieless by a master within two blocks of the school was in for trouble, but it was only a boy of a certain type who thought to remove his neckwear after classes let out. The rest of us wore our own proudly (I expect not self-consciously) while we drank cherry cokes with the Spence, Nightingale, and Chapin girls at Stark’s Restaurant on Madison Avenue, often when shopping downtown on weekends, and certainly to parties, where a sport jacket and slacks, dark suit, or, occasionally, dinner coat was the expected form of dress. (I was once apprehended by my father while leaving the house on a Saturday morning wearing a camel’s-hair jacket and burgundy turtleneck sweater. He accused me of dressing like a movie actor and sent me to my room to change into a button-down shirt and tie.)
John Lukacs infers a connection between the death of romantic love (a Western invention) and the advent of the classless society. I believe he is right, and that a further connection exists between romantic love and attentive dress. Romance has to do with aspiration—the aspiration for the heart and soul of the Beloved, worshiped as the almost unattainable Perfection, always in spiritual terms but often in social ones as well. The class aspect of dress is obvious, but it represents something beyond social pride or social ambition. In our postcivilized times, popular culture equates what it calls “the suits” with bankers, corporation directors, and other figures of power and influence in the interlocking financial and political worlds. But up until the day before yesterday, the suit was the dress of a gentleman belonging to a certain class that was neither defined nor distinguished by money. And the gentleman was recognized more specifically as a Christian gentleman, a creature many centuries in the making, the product of two millennia of Western civilization. Good dress has spiritual and religious elements in addition to social and aesthetic ones. Christ wore a tunic of such quality that the soldiers whiling away the time at the foot of His Cross cast lots to determine which of them would make off with it. The human body, Saint Paul teaches, is the Temple of the Holy Ghost. Are plastic shoes and a sweatsuit surmounted by a ball cap suitable adornment for such a temple, save in athletic circumstances? (I once attended Mass trying not to notice the porcine shoulders of a young man kneeling in the pew ahead of me. The back of his white T-shirt was stenciled with a drawing of one pig mounting another, above the legend “Makin’ Bacon.”) But in the classless society, which is really another term for the socialist society, informality—itself another word for uniformity—trumps Christian theology that has always insisted on the basic human dignity of man who is created in the image of God.
Obviously, simple laziness is partly to blame for the slovenliness prevalent in modern dress. It takes perhaps one minute to step into a pair of jeans and pull on a T-shirt over it. A good quarter-hour is required to stick a pair of links through the French cuffs of a dress shirt, attach a pair of galluses to the inner buttons of your trousers, select an appropriate necktie and wrap it neatly, use a shoe horn to save the backs of your oxfords, add a display handkerchief to your suit coat, and so forth. But laziness in this form is a proletarian laziness. And this is so whether the lazy dresser is a scion of the Rockefeller family or the owner of a Toyota dealership in Buffalo, New York, who discourages his wife from dressing for Sunday Mass because he is uncomfortable wearing (and, very importantly nowadays, being seen wearing) a coat and tie.
The postmodern, postbourgeois era is rampant with all sorts of unnatural behavior, an expression of the unnatural values and attitudes held by postmodern people. The ubiquitous refusal to dress is one example of this behavior. Another is the refusal of people in “modernized” cultures to grow up: to think, act, and behave like adults, to accept adult responsibilities—including the responsibility to look like adults, which in some ways is the highest responsibility, after the responsibility to bear and rear children. Adult people of a certain class have always dressed as a matter of unthinking course, while those belonging to the classes beneath them have been content—but also willing—to dress according to their social status, which usually meant wearing the functional clothes appropriate to their trade. All that is now ended, in a time when powerful politicians are known and elected by their nicknames (“Bill” Clinton, “Bob” Dole, “Ted” Kennedy, “Rudy” Giuliani)—a sure sign, Kenneth Minogue noted two decades ago, of ideologized politics and an ideologized society.
It will be partially unfair to accuse President Obama—as he is being, and will be, accused—of socializing the United States. That is because the American people, long before Obama, had been socialized already, together with their economy. They allowed themselves to be socialized; they wished to be socialized. And they wished to be socialized because they were willing to be brutalized. Every now and again in the course of human affairs, the unlikely happens. Things, or some things, really are what they seem. And in the case of the Western, and Westernized, publics around the world, the people have come to resemble vast undifferentiated brutish herds because they are in fact in process of becoming brutes. Conforming to the nature of mass men, they insist (as Richard Weaver explained half a century ago) on stripping away the veil that reveals even as it conceals, in order that the natural man may stand forward in the fullness of his crassest nature. Modern dress is demeaning to man, and it is meant to be demeaning. Modern people have no respect for themselves, only for their wants and desires. Dress has become cheap and ugly because bodies have become cheap, and the souls that animate them ugly. In all this there is a certain aesthetic coherence, a certain correspondence that even a barbarian may recognize. We may give him that. There is also the nearly universal insistence on “authenticity,” which is only the candor of cowards who cannot master even themselves. We have that candor to contend with, too.
Yet the remnant is fortunate in one respect, and it is a crucial one. The enemies of civilization—our enemies—are plain to behold. They wear a uniform, established by their defiant dress code of undress, which they observe uniformly. They do not present themselves to us in disguise. They know who we are. And we know who they are, too.