Dressing for civility

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Two of the books recently in the top five on the New York Times Best Sellers list were John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience and Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism. I have not read either, but the titles are reflections of our inflammatory reciprocal monologue that has promoted incivility of human interaction. Conservatives tend to trace the decline of behavior in America to the tie-dyed, bell-bottomed upheaval of the sixties with its drugs, sex, and disrespect for patriotism and religion. The Liberal explanation of the decline is one of ambiguity spanning the last three decades of moral misdirection in politics, religion, the military, and corporate capitalism. I have avoided trying to assign blame. I prefer looking at indicators and trends.

My earliest insight into the ominous change in taste and decorum came within my profession as a men's clothier. Most noticeably in the decade of the eighties, business and religious leadership infused the not-so-revolutionary idea of casual attire, or business casual as it was called at the office. The intention was noble. It was to promote a relaxed, egalitarian relationship between CEO's and corporate underlings.

Churches, using a similar logic, turned away from a dress code of ties and starched pin-point oxford shirts in exact neck size and sleeve length under a dark, conservative suit or navy blazer.

Apparel is only one of many art forms, with music, literature, theater, film, architecture and other creative expressions by which we trace and depict the aesthetic cycles of any culture. In fairness, we in the clothing industry see attention to sartorial detail only as an indicator, not in any way as a cause of behavioral variations.

There are many theories about the correlation of dress and behavior. From a first person perspective, people dress to express one's interpretation of who they are or hope to become. From the external perspective, other people make value judgments about someone else based on their rigid standards of dress. The attitudes of others may be prejudicial or may be a rational deductive conclusion based on observations of behavior that they associate with others in similar uniforms of conformity, defiance, hubris, or benign neglect.

The defining moment for me came from a customer who, in explaining his change in buying habits, told me that (we?) did not have to wear good clothes anymore. I wondered, but didn't ask, if he had to read good books, or eat good food, or watch good television, or drive a good car.

Public opinion in official polls and casual conversation is overwhelming that ethical and moral behavior have declined during whatever period the question designates. Some people believe that a downward movement is the unavoidable descent in the cultural trajectory of any nation, culture, religion, or empire. This conclusion cannot be drawn by making limited judgments based on shorter periods of decades or election cycles. I would not suggest that a three-decade decline in taste and appropriateness of apparel presages the fall of the American Empire.

Should we, like British prep school children, or corporate board rooms, or military units, all wear the same uniform and look and think alike? God and logic forbid. Should we as retailers, corporations, churches, schools, or families establish minimum (or maximum) standards of dress? Does the promotion of Casual Friday or Casual Sunday translate into casual attitudes toward productivity, performance, and behavior?

On the subject of civility, some exciting things are happening in our public schools. Through two or three different programs we are teaching character. Not sectarian dogma, but moral values. We emphasize caring, courage, citizenship, cooperation, fairness, perseverance, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, and targeted acts of kindness and compassion. On a similar note, one of my grandsons found some pleasure in selecting a blue-stripe tie to be part of game-day dress for his high school hockey team. This may not be a trend that will save democracy, Christianity, or traditional southern gentility, but it may be an indicator of better times.