Kennedy may have catalysed a shift to informality when he removed his top hat, but there is much to be said for dressing up for the occasion, writes Tiffany Jenkins
It all changed around the time that John F Kennedy went to his inauguration wearing a silk top hat, as was the norm, but took it off during the ceremony when he gave his address. Hatless, the new president looked modern and youthful. The men sitting around him, including the outgoing leader Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, look as if they were from a different era.
Kennedy’s bare head is blamed for having killed the millinery industry. And yes, if you look at photographs of this period, an increasingly bareheaded population appears in public. Previously, the people were always topped with a fedora, a trilby, a bowler, or a flat cap. But Kennedy’s impact is something of an exaggeration. As with any tipping point, he reinforced a trend that was at play. Hats were already being left at home on the shelf.
Since that time, there has been a dramatic change in how we dress, and mostly this is a very good thing. It’s all a lot less formal, with fewer sartorial rules. As well as going hatless, ladies no longer have to wear long white gloves. Corsets and girdles have been replaced by far less restrictive knickers and Spanx. Electric curling tongs have improved on the rollers they slept in overnight.
Cheaper and manufactured clothing, with plastic zips, has made it easier to buy outfits that can be chucked in the washing machine and dryer with no fuss.
There is no doubt that this has been liberating, that it has saved on dry cleaning bills and cut time-wasting attention on our attire. My mother never tires of telling me about how complicated and uncomfortable it was to get dressed when everything had to be just right for every single occasion. You should be thankful, she says, when I suggest that not only did she look lovely, but wonder if there might have been a point to her clothing strictures.
I am unimpressed with what passes as the dress code today. Wherever I go and whatever I do, work or play, at home or out and about, what people wear is pretty much the same no matter what they are up to. Casual or “smart casual” is the norm. Informality is the new uniform. But I don’t want to wear it, finding it at best unimaginative, and at worst a little deceptive.
Few are ever well-tailored in the office or at the bar. Occasionally you might catch a glimpse of a couple of extra sparkles at the theatre or the opera, but even when out somewhere special the clothing of choice, more often than not, seems to be jeans, jeans, and jeans. Given that the denim can cost hundreds of pounds, (or even £1,000 if you are peculiarly partial to certain designers), this cannot be a financially driven decision. Something else besides thrift is going on.
Two key features strike me about today’s look. First, we present ourselves as always at play, as if our personality is far more important than what we do. Secondly, we try and look as if we are only on the cusp of adulthood.
When I had a meeting with a 45-year-old man, earlier this week, he wore a battered leather jacket, a witty T-shirt and expensive trainers. It wasn’t the best look for someone beyond the first flush of youth. It couldn’t disguise his greying hair, and a bit of a belly. And given this was a professional conversation you have to ask why he didn’t feel the need to look like he’d made an effort.
Why did he want to give the appearance of being on his day off? There is something verging on the disrespectful about it, not just to me, but to his vocation. Newsreaders are the worst for this, especially the women. As they tell us about economic depression, war, and tragedy, they look as if they are on their way out to a cocktail bar. There is no gravitas here. The lack of seriousness shown to what they are talking about and their role is concerning.
The contemporary dress code of always relaxed and youthful doesn’t do it for me. It’s not that I want to spend more time getting ready, or shell out much more money. It’s that there were reasons for dressing up in particular ways, for particular occasions and events, rather than dressing down most of time. Buying expensive shoes doesn’t count, by the way, that is just a small part of the outfit, and rarely sensible.
In blending in with the camouflage of the dress code “smart casual” we have lost the purpose and art of dressing with definition and distinction. The hat and the gloves sent out important messages. First, it showed that you were in public, outside the home, and this required a proper public face. You put your best self on show, which required a conscious effort.
A bit like the “Sunday best”, which wasn’t just about wearing finery, but indicating that you put time and care into your appearance for what and who you valued. The formality and the smart suit said that you were professional and ready for business. It was a doffing of the cap to one’s profession and position.
With the distinction between the private and public space eroding, women put their face on whilst on the train into the office. Last week I even caught the whiff of the application of nail varnish on the commute. Lipstick and a powder puff in public I can take, but do I want to witness the whole make-up routine? No thanks.
It was around the time of the faux anti-elitism of New Labour that men began to shed their ties, and insisted on being called by their first name. “Dave” Cameron also tried this trick. Cameron would remove the suit jacket to display and reinforce just how average he is, as with leaving the old school tie in the wardrobe.
That everyone looks the same, and as if they are all slopping around the house, is not empowering, or egalitarian. It is a disguise. It masks the real differences between us and that we are not all in it together.
The thing I hate most is how as people grow up they want to look more and more like teenagers. What is it about 30- year-old females – with a little bit of experience, and wisdom – that makes them want to look like the youth of today rather than the attractive women they are? This isn’t a mutton dressed as lamb problem. It’s a not looking like the adult you are problem. It’s making a show of not taking yourself seriously
Dressing as a grown-up is far more flattering then pretending you have no curves and nothing better to do than lounge around. Give yourself a make-over – behind closed doors – and stop going out dressed like you don’t give a damn. First impressions count.