A casual camouflage uniform worn by all
It would not be controversial or original to claim that we live in an age of self-expressive individualism and the global fashion industry is bigger, with a greater volume of accessible choice in clothing, than ever before. Why then do most people wear casual, generic, interchangeable, unremarkable clothes in public now?
You can look at any street scene of Manhattan from previous decades for contrast to the one above and see that something has changed, though I think it will already be obvious to most. A scene like the one pictured above is typical now and it’s not a suburban grocery store, it’s one of the most expensive areas of commercial property in the world.
Just as film and media rarely shows people wearing masks and staring blankly at their phone, which is how reality actually looks (perhaps this reality is simply too depressing to see reflected back to us) film and media rarely shows accurately just how unstylish we’ve become. Curb Your Enthusiasm is maybe the most accurate depiction I can think of.
The first obvious answer that comes to mind is the rise of cheap and fast mass-produced fashion. This is no doubt a huge factor but it’s inedequate as an explanation. You could buy something extremely cheap that would be eye-catching, or relatively speaking, “dressed up” in some way. Instead there seems to be a deliberate choice to avoid attention or to be camouflaged into a uniform neutral non-style that communicates nothing and lacks any aesthetic intent. This is not to be confused with minimalism, which does have a carefully assembled conscious intent of taseful modernism. To “dress up” in public now is considered eccentric and may even attract negative attention. This phenomenon, I should say, is more advanced in the US but it’s becoming more common in other countries too.
One practical explanation is that our domestic habits have changed so that we prefer items that can be washed and dried hundreds of times after only one wear but we also consider domestic work to be something of little to no value culturally and we no longer expect women or men to spend much time doing it so perhaps everyone buys things that require as little as possible care, ironing or additional labour.
Changes in cities may also be a factor. In previous periods known for their fashion - think of London in the 60s - the street was the place to parade your boldest statement outfit. Street subcultures as they existed up to the 80s have mostly died out. Maybe London and Brooklyn hipsters could be counted, not so much as a subculture but certainly a street fashion, though that style was often a kind of parody of normal for the children of the rich. Interestingly today, bold fashion statements do live on but in designated zones and on the internet. The time and energy poured into the production of online self portraits in striking outfits is in total contrast to the expression on the street level. Is it that we don’t feel the people in real life are real enough to be worth dressing up for?
It is a gender neutral and also a classless non-style, which has developed with greater economic inequality but more abundant cheap goods, along with the disappearance of the aspirational working class and elite styles of the mid-century. It is also an ageless style and not in the way that a little black dress is. A child or an elderly person could wear the same generic clothing and it wouldn’t look age inapproporate to us. They are comfortable and sports-friendly clothes but of course we are less fit and slim than ever.
Looking to fashion theory for answers, which seems to have reached its peak at the height of academic Cultural Studies, there is a strong influence of books like Dick Hebdige’s Subcultures: The Meaning of Style. But little in the fashion theory books I found applies today to the offline world. In fact more often than not the opposite principles apply. There is instead a remarkable absence of either group identification or individual self expression. Maybe the end point of individual self-expression is to be absorbed into a grey mass because there isn’t even a small group orientation, like a subculture, with which to communicate.
In Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption the elites use style to distinguish themselves which non-elites later imitate in an aspirational way. Today, in response to the tension between a materially unequal reality and an imposed official egalitarian ideology we wear the fashion equivalent of a kind of monk’s tonsure to indicate humility and to remove any indicator of pride, unless we are in a designated zone in which radical individualism is pemitted. A later “trickle-up” theory was described by Paul Blumberg in The Decline and Fall of the Status Symbol: Some Thoughts in a Post-Industrial Society. He argued that in a society of abundance created by mass production status symbols no longer function because they are too easily imitated and so you have the reverse, in which elites adopt proletarian style.
But style isn’t just about status, it is also about beauty or aesthetic sophistication or creative intent of some kind. Why would we begin to deliberately choose uninteresting and unflattering clothes? My intuitive sense is that it has to do with pessimism and a sense of pointlessness in communication. When a place becomes an airport terminal of totally unconnected individuals with no shared culture or sense of a public, there is no coherent entity to express yourself to and it becomes pointless to signal or communicate something outward from within. Who would you be dressing up for?
The “hemline theory” holds that skirts get shorter in times of economic prosperity and longer in times of recession. While a literal interpretation doesn’t quite hold, the spirit of the idea does, in that fashion does seem to be bolder in times of optimism. The mood today is pessimistic and instead of a trickle down fashion of conspicuous consumption or a trickle up fashion of proletarian style, everyone wears a generic camouflage that communicates as little as possible. To dress up in a designated zone like a club or for a specific online audience means being aware of being perceived and of who the perceivers are. To dress up on the public street would be like dressing up to watch TV. We see people moving around but to us there is no percieving mind on the other side.
Will pride in stylish street fashion ever return?