Dress “Code”

This is from the “fun stuff with a point” files.

Last night I watched a very charming biography of Bill Cunningham – a famous New York Times journalist and “institution” whose specialty is a chronicle of women’s clothes as seen on the streets and venues of New York.  Some New York fashionistas measure their success by how often they have appeared in the Cunningham pages.  If you have the time, the program “Bill Cunningham – New York” is delightful.  See it discussed here with clips and trailers.

The program brings up a topic: dress “code” – the human stories implied by changing styles of dress (individually or collectively).  As a disclaimer, I am not particularly interested in fashion (my wardrobe is consistent with that level of interest).  I’m much more interested in the human being inside the clothes than the clothes on the outside.  I’m also exceedingly interested in how we change.  Fashion provides one of barometer of social circumstances, beliefs, and mood.  So what does interest me is insightfully seeing through the clothes styles to what is implied by the styles.

Fashions are to some extent a personal statement – a commentary about how a person wants to be “seen”, and what that says about the person’s self-image.  However, more broadly fashion is a commentary on situations and belief systems amongst collections of related peoples.  For example, the Wikipedia article, “Fashion”, makes the following interesting comments:

“Early Western travelers, whether to Persia, Turkey or China frequently remark on the absence of changes in fashion there, and observers from these other cultures comment on the unseemly pace of Western fashion, which many felt suggested an instability and lack of order in Western culture. The Japanese Shogun‘s secretary boasted (not completely accurately) to a Spanish visitor in 1609 that Japanese clothing had not changed in over a thousand years.”

In a broad sense of history it can be said that the West has largely been built on an irreverence for tradition whereas the East has maintained (until recently) a much deeper reverence for tradition.  Perhaps we can conclude that clothing reflected these ambient values.

Certainly changes in levels of social affluence, new materials, manufacturing tools, and the tastes of important personalities have been reflected in modes of dress.  In “The Tipping Point” Malcolm Gladwell further references the importance of social mavens (people of unique influence) in motivating fashion drifts.  However, to my mind the most interesting stories hidden in fashion are what changes in fashion tell about changes in broad social views.

With the birth of Silicon Valley a new dress code emerged.  It was much more functional and comfortable.  It was jeans and a simple shirt or sweater, simple shoes.  Fashionistas might call it sloppy and unsophisticated but they’d be missing an important point.  The whole new computer industry – one creating “instant” billionaires – was rising on the output of “code”: computer language to run the transformative new machines.  Without the code the machines were worthless; and the code was a product of long hours sitting in front of a computer screen.  Comfortable, functional clothes were a necessary practicality.

Due to the developing internet and other new distribution systems, the rules of business were being rewritten.  No longer was a major business dependent upon long years of building manufacturing and distribution systems.  No longer were the kids on the front lines dependent upon services which could only be obtained through the “suits” in the C-suite.  Steve Jobs with Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates with Paul Allen built whole new industries out of garages and jeans.   (To this day, Steve Jobs signature dress is jeans and a simple shirt.)   So, the “jeans and a shirt” dress “code” so relevant to computer programmers became an identity for the new computer industry.  A whole new ethos was implied.

Fancy clothes used to imply wealth and position.  Rigorous clothes (e.g. suit and tie) used to imply intellectual ability and sophistication.  And, as revealed in “Bill Cunningham – New York”, it still does in some circles.  But, things are changing.  Dress is becoming less formal overall because dress tells less.  The person with the billion dollar bank account and the cutting edge technology may be the kid in the jeans.  Increasingly, measures of sophistication and ability are found elsewhere.

So, what is revealed by the dress “codes” of today?  What movements of society do you think are revealed in clothing trends? What is implied, for example, by the 2009 New York Times article “White House Unbuttons Formal Dress Code“?  Or by the 2008 ABC News article “The Death of the Necktie“. What is implied by “casual Friday’s”?

Click “reply” and tell me what YOU think.  Look around.  In the view of LimbicZen it doesn’t really matter what someone is wearing.  What matters is the “code” that is implied.

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