All Too Casual

A week or so ago my wife and I went out to dinner at our favorite local Italian restaurant, a modestly upscale establishment, and as such, one of perhaps three in our entire geographic area.

We enjoyed the meal, as always, but I have to say that I was definitely distracted by the couple at the adjoining table, given that the male of the pair was wearing a tee-shirt of the type I usually reserve for exercise and yardwork, complimented by non-matching shorts that looked more like those worn by basketball players, and sandals. The woman with him was dressed very slightly more suitably.

Now, I know why the restaurant didn’t turn them away on grounds of attire – simply because it’s newish and is still running on the bare edge of profitability – and, in fact, one of the reasons we frequent it, in addition to the excellent food and setting [disregarding the attire of some patrons], is because we want it to survive and prosper and to continue to provide a higher level of food and service than all the fast-food outlets and mid-scale chain restaurants that proliferate in a regional university town.

Nonetheless, I am frankly baffled and astounded by what so many people wear out in public in the name of comfort(?) or convenience (?). The Italian restaurant is not exorbitant in its pricing, but it’s anything but bare-bones cheap, either, and I’m certain those thankfully few of its all too casually dressed patrons could certainly afford better attire than tee-shirts and running/basketball shorts, although from what I’ve seen advertised some of that sort of attire actually costs more than clothing that would seem more suitable to public appearances and dining in restaurants.

I understand the supposed lure of comfort, but what I don’t understand is why so many people wear “outfits” (for lack of a better term) that make them look their worst. There are plenty of clothes that are comfortable, affordable, and enhance the wearer’s presence – or at least don’t worsen his or her appearance. One fashion designer was reputed to have said that his clothes were designed to make a woman look more attractive than if she were stark naked, and as I unfortunately age, I know that my clothed appearance is definitely more attractive than my unclothed appearance.

The same general observation goes for men’s and women’s grooming. Why are hair “styles” and beard styles seemingly designed to make the wearer look worse? Or have people gotten so narcissistic that they can’t tell what does look good? And don’t tell me it’s for convenience… beards so unkempt that they get into everything including food, and that everything gets into, aren’t exactly convenient. I’m not against facial hair per se, and I have several acquaintances who look far better in their well-trimmed beards than they would bare-faced, but what’s with the growth of slovenly clothing and grooming that seems to be spreading? Is it just another aspect of the “shock culture? If so, I’ll admit I find it shocking, shockingly stupid and ill-mannered. But then I’m an anachronistic troglodyte who believes in wearing in public clean clothes that are actually clothing, as opposed to excessive skin-exposing exercise gear, and at least vaguely match, and grooming that doesn’t make people want to move away in fear and disgust.

15 thoughts on “All Too Casual”

  1. RM says:

    I’m afraid the formality is dying. Whether that’s something that pleases or distresses you likely depends on the generation to which you were born. In general, I think that formality when not imposed by business or mandated and enforced by the host or locale of a given social situation, is on the way out. Life has become far too busy and the return on that particular investment of time and money has dwindled to a point where the majority find it increasingly difficult to bother. There could be a backlash, and the trend could reverse and have the “cool” thing to do be to dress more formally, but I don’t see that happening soon.

    I abhor suits, ties, and any attire more formal than t-shirt and jeans/pants/shorts. I can literally count on less than both hands the number of times I have been required to wear a suit. Business trips, funerals and weddings are pretty much the gamut, (I wore a t-shirt and jeans to my high school prom) and I chafe at every one. I can afford to wear “better,” more formal attire, but I don’t consider it to be better, just “dressier.” I honestly don’t really care what other people think about the way I look, though I am not looking to shock others. I do try to wear clothes that fit nicely and are clean, but if you think t-shirts are overly casual, you wouldn’t like what I wear.

    On the other hand, I would give good odds that the sort of restaurant you were in is NOT the sort of establishment I would patronize, either. If a coat and tie were required, I wouldn’t care if the food were free and the tastiest in town. It wouldn’t see me as a customer. That’s just not worth the effort to me. I’d far more rather just get take-out food and eat at home.

    1. R. Hamilton. says:

      Maybe I’m old enough not to mind a bit of formality so much. When I go to a concert of my favorite singer (not quite classical, but usually performs in classical venues), I usually wear a suit or better, out of respect and appreciation. The one exception was an outdoor venue in summer, when I wore a nice embroidered Philippine shirt (if in an unusual color scheme with her then-favorite colors) more suited to the climate.

      OTOH, when for variety I go to see an extraordinary Australian guitar player next month in a small and informal venue, I’ll probably wear black jeans, a dark shirt, and a black leather jacket. I’d get laughed right out of there if I showed up in a tux. 🙂

  2. D Archerd says:

    I think RM sums up the current generation’s attitude perfectly: “I honestly don’t care what other people think about the way I look.”

    I believe that dressing well (or at least appropriate to the occasion) is a mark of respect, respect for others and not least respect for oneself. I have grown increasingly appalled at how people dress in public as well, whether in the workplace, in restaurants, or in church. It all seems like people who down-dress are sending a great, big FU message to everyone else around them. They may genuinely not care what other people think about them, or they may simply be ignorant of the way our appearance impacts how others view and treat us.

    But in the long run, it’s all just another turn of the fashion wheel. Old farts like myself can lament fashions like saggy pants or “scruff” beards, but I can also recall some pretty cringe-worthy things I wore in my youth. (I was once chased off the streets of Vienna in the 1970’s by a band of whores because I was barefoot, all of them chanting, “Hippie! Hippie! Hippie!” as I beat a hasty retreat.)

    It may well be that in a few more years, a new generation will rebel against the perpetual slovenliness of their elders and being tailored to the nines will once again be expected.

    I used to be disgusted…now I’m just amused.

    1. RM says:

      I would add, parenthetically, that I’m not a member of the “current generation,” as I am in my late 40’s. The way I dress has no bearing whatsoever on the amount of respect I pay others. I don’t attend functions or patronize establishments where a suit is appropriate dress, if at all possibly avoided. On those rare occasions that I can’t avoid it, I do wear a suit, as ridiculously uncomfortable as those things are.

      If people want to think less of me because I wear t-shirts and jeans, let them. It doesn’t affect me. Anyone who would have a problem with me due to the way I dress is not someone with whom I would socialize.

  3. Daze says:

    This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Way back when, I was working in the City of London, and delighted in getting the suit off and into jeans and tee when home, and to go out (though not to a restaurant). But then I became the local Labour Party councillor, and I found that my constituents, almost entirely working and tradespeople who wore jeans to work all day, put on a suit to come to a meeting, and regarded me as disrespectful for not wearing mine. I did care what they thought – not just because they would be voting for me again – and particularly did care that they shouldn’t feel disrespected or patronised.

    It does seem to me to be getting worse, and the culprit is the same as many other things, in my view: people don’t care about other people, what they think, or what happens to them. In return they shouldn’t be surprised if nobody cares when bad things happen to them, but somehow they feel entitled to receive that care that they couldn’t give.

  4. Alison Hamway says:

    Interesting discussion. My city is very oriented toward tourism and outdoor adventure, and it is normal for people to be dressed casually (or in their ski clothes during winter) at most restaurant meals. I do agree it is important to dress appropriately for the occasion, and when I visit my family in San Francisco, I pack nicer clothing. Actually the last time I was criticized for how I was dressed in my city occurred when I wore normal work appropriate clothing (slacks and a nice sweater) to an after work concert at a church. A parishioner told me I was overdressed and that they did not dress up in their church. I thought her criticism was uncalled for and I have never been tempted to return to their place of worship.

  5. John Prigent says:

    Some interesting thoughts here! Is there perhaps a kind of reverse snobbery in the trend to dress sloppily? For myself, at 75 I don’t own a suit and only wore a shirt and tie last week because it was my dear wife’s funeral. She knew perfectly well that I for preference wear a sports jacket and brown trousers with slip-on shoes, and wouldn’t have expected anything else. Perhaps I should admit that I also wear slippers indoors, and smoke a pipe. I must look like the archetype of an old-fashioned academic or writer, though I’m not an academic despite my professional Fellowship but I do write articles and books that get published in my niche non-fiction market.

  6. Tim says:

    Regardless of what people like to think, dress code is important. Talk to a professional interviewer and they usually say that first impressions are what matters most of all.

    Turn up in a court of law wearing a T-shirt would send a strong negative signal and I doubt your counsel would condone showing such casualness – which could be viewed as disrespect or arrogance or just plain naivety.

    Restaurants are different as the customer likes to feel they can call the tune so it depends on the restaurant’s cash flow whether they would insist on a dress code. For lunch – no, but for an evening out at a top restaurant I would expect people to dress specially or appropriately – or I doubt I would attend that restaurant again. Then again, T-shirt wearers would not want everyone around them in more formal wear.

    @John: Sorry to hear of your wife’s death. When my own wife passed away in her 40s, I felt I had to wear formal clothing at the funeral as everyone else would in rural England. Peer pressure I suppose and also fear of appearing to treat the event just too casually.

    Your usual dress habit is very British! I would bet that even if you had no suits, you would possess at least one dinner jacket – with correct shoes of course:)

  7. Sam says:

    Dress codes might be important although I’ve never subscribed to them – you’ll never catch me wearing a tie, except maybe a bow-tie because bow-ties are cool.

    However I wonder who sets dress codes and how do they change over time if people don’t push against them?

    When I was a child I had a poster on my wall depicting different formal wear from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. The changes over time seemed quite radical to me and it occurs to me that the only way those changes could have occurred was if someone was breaking the dress codes of the time and other people followed suit.

    1. James says:

      As a ’20-something’, I’d just like to start by saying I really like my suit, and would wear it more often if it were appropriate to do so.

      D Archerd, that’s an interesting observation of your company’s engineers. At the company I work for, it would be odd for any of the engineers including myself to wear anything other than business pants and a shirt. On the other hand, it would also be odd to see anyone wearing a tie, jacket or otherwise being more dressed up.

      I wear a bow-tie now. Bow-ties are cool.

  8. Justin says:

    While I can’t comment on fashion trends elsewhere, I can tell you that dress-down is its own form of uniform in certain areas and certain business circles. It’s as much a slavish adherence to a trend as the mildly colored suit is in other circles. Beards are studiously unkempt, distressed shirts and jeans are from fashionable designers or high-end vintage stores, and it’s more conformist to talk about soccer and glamping (not a spelling mistake) than baseball and stocks.

    At the end of the day, these specifically casual trends seem to fulfill the same roles that what we consider more traditional formal/business attire served in previous generations: they identify their wearers as members of a particular circle, denote adherence to standards, and indicate an understanding of the culture.

  9. D Archerd says:

    Exactly right, Justin. How we choose to dress sends a very specific message about what group we belong to (or want to belong to), what we think about society, what we think about ourselves. And the “dress codes” always exist, enforced by the other members of the group, whether those codes are written. In my company (a U.S. Fortune 50 firm) wearing a tie except when in a customer-facing situation is considered odd if not downright irritating, but there are also gradations depending on one’s job. Engineers are apparently expected to be complete slobs and I’ve seen them come to work in shorts and flip-flops. Marketing and management types seem to favor jeans but with a collared shirt and a sport coat.

    The point is that the way we dress says something important about ourselves. As long as the message is conscious and deliberate, well & good. But to think that how we appear doesn’t matter or that it doesn’t affect how other people treat us is delusional.

  10. Nathaniel says:

    I feel there’s a lot of culturally-ingrained assumptions here that are going unchallenged. Suits look “good” and “respectable”. T-shirts and shorts are “sloppy” and “unkempt”. Justin makes a good point that in some circles, that is not what those looks convey/are perceived as.

    At my work, also a tech company, the CEO’s “uniform” is a suit jacket over a t-shirt and jeans, and someone wearing a full suit and tie is probably here for an interview.

    The way we dress is like a language, and as with verbal languages, not everyone’s is the same. Perhaps the couple in the restaurant were attempting to express a disdain or disrespect for the standards of those around them. I kind of doubt it, though. I think it’s more likely they just wanted a night out, same as Mr. and Mrs. Modesitt did.

  11. Nathaniel says:


    I post that, and it occurs to me that I have no idea if Mr. Modesitt’s wife even adopts that sobriquet, (her husband’s last name.) It’s what’s most commonly done in our culture, and I of course meant no disrespect by assuming that she did, (as I of course mean no disrespect now by acknowledging she might not,) but I have encountered women (and men) with strong feelings, positive and negative, about that tradition. It is quite easy to unwittingly blunder into unintended faux pas when we assume the cultural norms we have adopted are shared by all within that culture.

    1. My wife did take my surname, but when we were engaged I gave her the option of using her maiden name or taking my name. I have daughters who kept their maiden name, daughters who hyphenated their name and their husband’s, and a daughter-in-law who took the Modesitt family name.

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