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How Did America Become a Nation of Slobs?

One evening in early April I was waiting for my ten-year-old twin granddaughters to finish their indoor soccer practice when a girl their age approached me and said, “Your coat looks really nice.”

It was a wet, chilly evening, and I was wearing a London Fog given me thirty years ago by an elderly widow whose deceased husband no longer had to fret about the rain or the cold.

Though I thanked the girl, her comment took me aback. Then I looked at the other adults milling around me, and thought, as I often think nowadays, that all of them were dressed like…well, like slobs. Several were wearing sweat pants and hoodies, others ragged trousers and rumpled sweaters. One woman, a thirty-something mom, wore designer jeans torn artfully at the knees.

Several people have from time to time complimented me on my attire. One man, age fifty or so, once told me I dressed like an adult, a remark that struck me then and strikes me now as ludicrous. I typically wear a pair of khaki pants, casual shoes, and a shirt with a button-down collar. To be complimented on such mundane clothing is not only silly, it also reveals how low our standards have fallen.

Go to any public arena—a sports event, a shopping mall, Wal-Mart, you name it—and you realize the standard of dress for men and women, adults and children, has reached a low point in American history. Blue jeans are de rigueur; t-shirts with slogans, some of them billboards of obscenity, assault the eyes; pajama bottoms are worn to the grocery store; restaurant patrons appear at lunch looking as if they had just rolled out of the sack; grown men wear baseball caps while eating steaks at Outback.

Let’s contrast our contemporary “style” with the recent past. Go online, Google “baseball games 1930s photos,” and look at the pictures of the fans. Most are males wearing ties and coats. The women are wearing dresses and hats. Take a look at television shows from the 1950s or at “Mad Men,” and note how stylish people dressed when in public.

When I was a boy, I remember my mother once telling me she couldn’t go to the store until she took the curlers from her hair. “Why?” I asked.

“Good heavens,” she said, “no one in town goes shopping with their hair in curlers.”

Those days are long gone, Mom.

Of course, lots of folks still spiff up for work. The tellers in my bank always look professional, some attorneys I know hit the office in a coat and tie, and the male teachers in my grandson’s school wear ties in the classroom. Yesterday I saw a woman, mid-twenties, walking down the street in a lovely black dress. Though her looks were not remarkable, she was striking because of the dress. She is also the exception rather than the rule. A good number of people I see during the day, of all backgrounds, run the gamut in attire from hooker to beggar.

What does our own sloppy dress tell us about ourselves? Are we too pressed for time to dress a little up rather than way down? Are we rebelling against the idea of beauty and culture? Or are we just too lazy to pull on a pair of slacks instead of wearing the sweats we slept in?

I have no idea.

Recently I was watching Casablanca with two of my granddaughters. One of them suddenly turned to me and said, “Why was everyone so dressed up back then?”

“People used to dress that way. They did every day. We just don’t do it anymore.”

“You do,” my granddaughter said.

I burst out laughing. My granddaughter gave me a puzzled look, then returned to the movie.

Oscar Wilde once said, “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.” No one would ever consider me overdressed—or overeducated, for that matter—but if I am now regarded as well-dressed, a man representing haute couture, then I can draw only one conclusion.

We are a nation of slobs.

A version of this article was first published in 2018.

Image credit: Flickr-Michael Newman, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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13 comments
Jeff Minick
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13 Comments

  • Avatar
    Patrick
    April 26, 2023, 6:32 pm

    Entitlement culture. We have spent decades teaching our children they can do no wrong and have adopted that "self-esteem" across most generations.

    REPLY
    • Avatar
      Mike@Patrick
      July 31, 2023, 5:59 pm

      Yep, and the Baby Boomers failed to instill the value of self-respect onto their children because they themselves were entitled.

      REPLY
      • Avatar
        Charley@Mike
        November 25, 2023, 9:47 am

        Beep, wrong. And I'm far from a baby boomer.

        REPLY
  • Avatar
    William
    April 26, 2023, 11:45 pm

    So what? We dress comfortably and it keeps us cozy. My closet contains suits, dress shirts, and ties, but usually I dress in t-shirts and sweatpants. Comfort is now king, as it should be.

    REPLY
    • Avatar
      Mike@William
      July 31, 2023, 5:54 pm

      So you choose to look like a slob because it feels comfortable and we shouldn't judge by appearances? Do you always eat McDonald's when you can eat better? This attitude is what makes America ugly and entitled to think we're exceptional.

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    • Avatar
      Charley@William
      November 25, 2023, 9:49 am

      Must be nice to know it all "…as it should be". We are so fortunate to live around you.

      REPLY
  • Avatar
    Hugh E. Brennan
    April 27, 2023, 2:23 am

    I live near NYC and regularly travel downtown. The lower Broadway "SoHo" area is full of high-end designer shopping, and the area is always crowded with Europeans and South Americans on shopping sprees. It's also the home to many of the young models, actors, etc. that dress up the New York scene with their youth and good looks.

    I often comment on how wide the gap is between the time and effort spent on fashion and the hideous sameness of the above mentioned sloppy dressing.

    Black skinny jeans, t-shirts, and black puffer coats. Everyone looks like hell. Sometimes in the warm weather, a beautiful young woman will come swinging down the street in a summer dress. Wow!!

    The men all look like hell. A European guy will have a knotted scarf- that's it.

    My poor mom was a woman of the 30s and 40s. She believed in glamour and style. She sent me off to school in wingtips and cuffed pants, but the line couldn't be held, and by time 68-69 rolled around, it was patched bell-bottoms, workboots, and Army-Navy surplus.

    I remeber flying back from Paris to JFK years ago and thinking, "we look like hell."

    REPLY
    • Avatar
      Mike @Hugh E. Brennan
      July 31, 2023, 6:01 pm

      The airlines banned smoking onboard apparently in the year 2000. Yet they allow pigs to fly who beat up the help, and gaze like robots at smartphones and don"t converse with others.
      Thanks, Steve Jobs for screwing up the human race!

      REPLY
  • Avatar
    Kalikiano Kalei
    April 27, 2023, 2:47 am

    Interesting subject, Jeff. Although I fully agree with you in general terms, it occurs to me that there is a distinction to consider between "well-dressed" and "tastefully-dressed" (or what I would further characterise as 'stylish in a unique but cultivated manner'). Over the years, having traveled extensively around this poor old, battered, and diverse planet, I've always found humanity's many varied modes of dress a source of fascination. As a moderately conservative person, I admit to a sneaking admiration for certain foreign (i.e. non-US) 'class' refinements in personal apparel (an example would be the English tweedy look, etc; another would be traditional Germanic/Austrian Trachten influence on contemporary Bavarian and Austrian dress). I often wear items that reflect or echo those styles but of course such sartorial heroics are almost invariably lost on most Americans, these days. One must always remember, however, that 'clothes don't necessarily make the man' as much as does 'attitude'. Attitude and self-possession are always paramount, no matter the fashion.

    Americans, by and large, are far too casual and relaxed in situations where they should be a bit more presentably turned out. You see this frequently at airports, where far too many of today's lower-middle and lower class air travelers look like they just stepped out of a WalMart meme. Thus, if you want to spot the Americans in Europe, just look for the WalMartians!

    The ubiquitous ballcap you reference is a great example to briefly focus on. A reversed ballcap might be OK for a kid on a teen from the hood who idolises 'gangsta' rap and prison-chic, but on a 50-60 year old, fully mature adult?! Methinks NOT! Americans today tend to shy away from any sort of head-cover but if they do affect a hat or cap, it's usually one form or another of that bloody ballcap! Ugh.

    I am of the opinion that every American should travel as much as possible around the word and observe other cultures, their customs and dress, but sadly enough far too many think that those other cultures should themselves emulate America's super-casual slobbishness. Even more sadly, this aspect of American culture continues to osmose and diffuse throughout the world…a development that greatly disappoints and saddens me.

    Yes, comfort is important, inarguably, but it IS possible to be tastefully turned out and still be comfortable. It all depends on the level of cultivation and sophistication one has, I feel.

    I'll cite an only slightly-related tangent here. I have a favorite old flight jacket, a US Navy 'WEP' type that was favored by Marine Aviators in and around the Vietnam era. That jacket was intended originally to be the upper half of an insulating inner assembly for an 'over-water' immersion suit (AKA: 'Poopysuit') but it caught on with the Marines as a stand-alone flight jacket. Anyway, although an Air Force guy, myself I really liked the WEP and it became my 'lucky flight jacket'. I wore it whenever I flew and also wore it as my 'go-to' jacket after getting out of the service. For some reason, that jacket has snared me more compliments from attractive young ladies that I ever expected. Slobby or not, that's quite an ego boost for a guy who's now old enough to be their Grossvater, LoL! Is that 'style' or just coincidence? I'll leave it to others to decide, but they'll probably bury me in that Navy-issue favorite of mine!

    Thanks for the usual, excursive mental stimulation, Jeff!

    REPLY
  • Avatar
    Margot
    April 28, 2023, 5:59 am

    There is one word that describes women's clothes, hideous. Stretchy, form fitting, asymmetrical tubes. Must be really cheap to make, but cost lots. I remember tailored clothes for women. Now the trousers fit so far below the waist women look out of shape. What happened to hourglass figures? That's what I have, but clothes aren't made for my shape because women don't have hips anymore.

    Men don't want to wear neckties. That little piece of fabric can dress up any man. So easy. I envy.

    REPLY
    • Avatar
      Mike@Margot
      July 31, 2023, 5:57 pm

      I don't see how any self-respecting woman can wear such crap as is now to be seen today.
      I'm not a woman but I wouldn't wear the stuff that these fools put on, especially when they are obese and look dreadful wearing it.

      REPLY

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