One can hardly think of two more different jobs than U.S. soldier and Starbucks barista.
Yet men and women in these very different jobs gained new freedom to dress down on the job in the last month: Soldiers may now roll up the sleeve of their camouflage uniforms, while Starbucks employees can now wear some styles of hats, more colorful shirts, and hair dyed any color.
A 2014 relaxation of the Starbucks dress code had already allowed visible tattoos. One of the models in the new Starbucks “LookBook” is sporting magenta hair and elaborate tattoos down both arms, hardly a conservative look. Nevertheless, the new Starbucks dress code is relatively conservative by the standards of retail establishments (and its counsel to avoid neon and clashing shirt and tie combinations might be taken to heart by plenty of folks, not just baristas!).
If even the very conservative U.S. army and the relatively conservative Starbucks have both eased their dress codes, we can safely bet that the trend for ever-more-informal dress will continue.
It is remarkable to think of just how much dress standards have relaxed in recent decades. I have in mind a 1967 photo of my father standing next to his recently-widowed mother and her best friend, also recently widowed. My father was turned out in a suit and tie, my grandmother and her best friend in their Sunday best. The occasion? My grandmother and her friend, who had but rarely been outside of Saskatchewan, were about to embark on a round-the-world trip, and my father was to drive them from their homes in the village of Elbow to the Regina airport.
In 1967, the glamour of air travel simply demanded one’s best clothes. My father would have been in the airport for only long enough to drop off his mother and her friend before getting back on the road for an eight-hour drive back to his home in Edmonton—and he must have worn his suit and tie for an entire long day on the highways. Now people fly in flip-flops and jogging suits.
Probably nearly all of us have welcomed today’s more relaxed standards at least some of the time, although there is confusion about whether tattoos are acceptable in many workplaces, about whether “casual Friday” disadvantages women, and about what “business casual” and “evening dress” really mean.
Still, it’s hard not to look back on the more formal standards of even fairly recent decades—on TV this week we’ve seen not-so-very-old photos of past RNC and DNC conventions with delegates in dresses and suits, not baseball caps and t-shirts—and think that we’ve lost a sense of the importance of presenting oneself for both quotidian public appearances and special public occasions. There are many things that have contributed to the erosion of American civil society in the last decades, but our lowered standards of dress are perhaps both a sign of, and a further cause of, that erosion of civil society.