How Did America Become a Nation of Slobs?

"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?" Intellectual Takeout

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Bert Perry's picture

Last night, I was joking with daughter #4 about something said by a "Dollar General" customer to a reporter; that they liked DG better, because they didn't have to dress up like you did when you went to Wal-Mart.  At the time, we were right outside Wal-Mart watching people go in in pajamas, and we were watching a middle aged man with a ton of tattoos and a beer gut changing his shirt in the parking lot.  I shudder to think what I'd see if I frequented the Dollar General a mile from my home!

But seriously, there are a bunch of issues going on here.  First of all, we have climate control where most of us work, so we no longer need to wear a coat when we work--just a jacket to get there and back.  Second, wearing a coat and tie was often more a signal that one had made it into the middle class than it was a statement of decency.  (visit if you doubt this--the coal miners like Shorpy aren't wearing ties or regular suitcoats for obvious reasons) 

Third, our jobs often don't require our clothes to protect us like they once did--again, few of us are mining coal anymore.  Hence we have a greater freedom of self-expression than we used to.  Fourth, globalization is pushing clothing manufacturing to nations that have no experience making western-style clothes of the 1940s through the 1970s--so in most stores, you're not going to get anything worth wearing.  Lycra and stretch knits are substituting for sewing skill and design, really. 

And in all of that, those of us who want to dress well--guilty--find an ever decreasing number of places to get something good.  Men's clothiers are closing, Men's Wearhouse no longer sells many "long" cut suits, Macy's has gutted the formerly good menswear department they used to have, and so on.   Women face the same thing--it's either clothing cut for older women who have lost their waist, or those stretch knits.  

And really, let's face facts; the 1960s insistence on suit & tie whether one's lifestyle required it or not probably hurt things a LOT, because instead of wearing well-crafted suits in natural fibers, men had to buy a few suits with the same clothing budget.   The end result was that many suffered in polyester suits and shirts, and those men (and women) don't miss the days of "dressing up" at all for that reason. 

John E.'s picture

Why does the writer of the article get to decide for others how to define words like "slob," "dress down," and "dressy?"

In my opinion, ties are a ridiculous, superfluous accoutrement. I find them pretentiously pointless. Unlike the writer of this article, I also recognize that my opinion is just that, my opinion. As a general rule, and also unlike the writer of this article, I recognize that my opinion does not justify prescribing pejorative terms like "pretentious" and "ridiculous" to those whose opinion differs from mine and who wear ties.

If you want to wear a coat and tie, then wear a coat and tie. If you want to wear sweat pants and a t-shirt, then wear sweat pants and a t-shirt. But stop pretending that your culturally-conditioned clothing choices contain any ontological superiority over someone else's.     

Jim's picture

John E. wrote:
ties are a ridiculous, superfluous accoutrement. I find them pretentiously pointless.

Add "filthy!"

When your doctor smoothes his tie, leans over, places a stick in your mouth and asks you to say "ah," have you ever found yourself wondering where his tie has been?

Steven Nurkin did. The fourth-year medical student at the Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine in Haifa, Israel, got to thinking that with hospital infections affecting 5-10 percent of all admitted patients, it might be interesting to analyze doctors' neckties for disease-causing pathogens.

So, while doing a rotation at a hospital in New York City, Nurkin and colleagues decided to start swabbing ties and culturing each sample.

What he found was more than a little alarming.

Among 42 male surgical clinicians surveyed at the New York Hospital, Queens, nearly half were toting infection-causing pathogens on their ties. Some of the surveyed doctors wore white coats, but almost none kept them closed because, Nurkin says, they found it too restricting.

To make sure the pathogens weren't just a common coating on all men's neckties, Nurkin also screened the ties of 10 hospital security guards who had minimal contact with patients.

Among the guards' ties, only one hosted a pathogen, which was mostly harmless and common to human skin.

"The necktie is important for the doctor-patient relationship," said Nurkin. "But it's also there on the front lines — dangling in front of patients as the doctor makes his rounds."

Aaron Blumer's picture

The interesting questions the piece raises have to do with context. Why did we dress up before and why did we change?

For my part, along with the many other symptoms of a culture in decline, the fact that nobody wants to look like a "gentleman" or a "lady" anymore indicates that we have lost something important. I see a major part of it as egalitarianism/equalitarianism run amok. Once we decided to be anti-elitist and embrace "we're really all the same," we also embraced the lowest common denominator socially. Ties in with our embrace of faux poverty (expensive ripped jeans are an example). So with our clothing we are saying, "We give up on excellence as a concept. It's not fair for anyone to rise above anyone else."

John E.'s picture

The ending of Two Gentlemen of Verona can be a puzzling travesty if Shakespeare's objective is overlooked. The play ends with Valentine forgiving and basically excusing Proteus' attempted rape of Silvia. With the play, Shakespeare was mocking the concept of "Courtly Love" and its accompanying divide of society. In the play, those who actually exhibit the noble characteristics that medieval society (and Elizabethan society) believed that only males of certain privilege - noble birth - possessed were the servants and women. The characters that exhibited the characteristics like dishonesty, prone to gossip, weak-willed, disloyalty, and a self-serving spirit were those whom society believed to be above such common character traits usually attributed to the lower classes and women. 

Flash forward to the Victorian era, and Dandies (the "Valentines" and "Proteuses" of the Industrial Revolution) resented that the growing middle class was able to afford clothes sold in stores. Young men of a certain class resented the fact that the workers were beginning to dress like them. The Dandies begin finding articles of clothing that were superfluous to the point that the growing middle class wouldn't waste their money on.

Flash forward another 100 years, and as a boy I always puzzled at the notion that "we wear suits and ties, we dress up for church because we want to honor God by dressing our best." I always wondered how the mechanics and farmers and plumbers felt knowing that their work uniform was unacceptable before God while the work uniform of the lawyers and bankers and accountants were acceptable before God.

I reject the notion of gentlemen and ladies as mediated by Victorian ideals (which were informed by the classist ideals of the Medieval and Elizabethan periods). And this is not a rejection of excellence. This is a rejection of faux excellence defined by subjective matters - clothes. 

John E.'s picture

I noticed that someone "disliked" Aaron's comment. Is there a reason for the anonymous "dislike" option? It feels passive-aggressive and unedifying. 

TylerR's picture

There seems to be an implicit understanding in our culture that dressing up = respect. I dress in a shirt and tie every day for work, iron creases in my pants, and shine my boots every day (yes, I wear boots with my shirt and tie; I'm weird). Why do people dress up for job interviews? Why did the reps from the Washington State Department  of Financial Institutions put on suit coats when they came over to our agency the other day to do a presentation? Why were those same folks dressed with only shirts and ties when I went over to their agency to do a similar presentation six months ago? Why did I and another investigator dress up a bit when we traveled across the state yesterday to do a suspect interview?

Are these real reactions, or are they culturally conditioned? I think the form they take is culturally conditioned, but the impetus is real. We recognize we ought to straighten up a bit in certain settings.  

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

John E.'s picture

Isn't "straightening up" different than "dressing up?" I mean, let's say a farmer wears his overalls to church. There's a difference between wearing clean overalls and wearing the overalls covered in filth from mucking cow stalls. Serving others would seem to require an eye to cleanliness. So, I think that I agree that we should "straighten up." It's the notion that the ways in which certain materials are tailored makes them "better" than other cuts that I reject.

Bert Perry's picture

I'd phrase things this way.  Clothing that is clean, fits, and in good condition is respect.  Clothing that is an attempt to fit into a profession or social class to which one does not belong is hypocrisy.  You can see a fair amount of this with young/middle aged men wearing clothing that historically is the province if the "English gentleman", the guy sitting on a trust fund and not doing any particular work.  Hence that person needed no breast pocket for pens, etc..  You also see it on the other end of the spectrum with people wearing deliberately ripped jeans as if they'd somehow managed to get a job filling potholes.  Except the guys actually filling potholes wear much nicer jeans, of course.

Ron Bean's picture

I saw some clips of the NBA draft this morning. Are those suits acceptable? Smile. 


"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

josh p's picture

Aaron, I agree with you. The problem with equalitarianism is not that it seeks to lift some; it’s that it advocates lowering some.  I’m not going to necessarily name clothing that is “respectful” but there is no doubt (in my mind) that dressing down is part of a cultural shift. I’ll have to find it but I read an article about how professionals are actually struggling to know what to wear now since stylish has been exchanged for trendy. One quality suit and a few shirts and ties lasts a long time and is cheaper than all those $100/pair jeans so I personally don’t find the financial argument convincing. This is coming from someone who is required to wear jeans as part of my work uniform. 

Ed Vasicek's picture

Two thoughts.  # 1 How you dress affects how you behave and relate. Studies have been done about how dress affects behavior.  When people put on a costume, for example, they behave differently (mimicking the behavior, at least somewhat, of the costume).  When people dress classy, they act classy (at least more so).  When they dress like slobs, they act more like slobs.


According to a paper from Social Psychological and Personality Science, a certain number of subjects were instructed to wear casual clothing and formal clothing before taking intellectual tests. Those wearing formal clothing performed much better in the given tasks, especially when it comes to creative and organizational tasks, which confirmed higher creativity capabilities. So, next time you are facing a demanding task at work, make sure that you dress up, as it will make you feel more confident and focused.


Read more here:

#2 How things have changed

When Ed Norton hung around Ralph and Alice, he was in a tee shirt and vest.  That was considered part of the comedy.  And Ralph was in his uniform.

But when they went out on the town (or even a lodge meeting), it was coat and tie.

Now a lot of young men don't even own a sport's coat or a tie!

Things changed quickly, beginning with the 1960's.  My high school class (I started in the fall of 1970) was the first one ungoverned by a dress code. Before then, girls had to wear skirts or dresses, boys dress slacks and collared shirts.

When my dad was in high school back in the early 40's, the boys wore suits!  My grandfather was a tailor, and my dad learned to be one from his dad (but never worked in the field), so he sewed a suit for himself, had suits my grandfather made him, and hand-me-down suits from his older brothers.  That made him a cut above back then.


"The Midrash Detective"

John E.'s picture

Social science ain't science.

There is nothing about the ontology of a coat and tie that makes those clothing choices classy. Likewise, there is nothing about the ontology of jeans and a t-shirt that makes those clothing choices sloven. It's all a social construct, and it's a social construct based in classist prejudice.  

Did the counter-culture movement (starting with the Provincetown Players in the early 20th century) cognitively reject the cultural norms represented in clothing choices? Yes. Did the counter-culture movement do so with motives that I decry? Yes.

But, it's not the early 20th century and it's not the 60's nor the 70's. I fail to see any reason to steer into bad Victorian ideals because I'm doing battle with the contra-Biblical worldview of "Jig" Cook and Susan Glaspell. 

There is nothing about wearing a coat and tie that makes the wearer any better at anything else than somebody wearing jeans and a t-shirt (except maybe better at mastering a double windsor knot). If people act slovenly when they wear certain types of clothes, it's because they've been socially conditioned to do so.

Some of the worst preachers that I've ever heard refuse to enter the pulpit unless they're wearing a suit and tie. Their bad preaching isn't the fault of the suit and the tie. Some of the best preaching that I've ever heard has been by guys wearing jeans. Their profitable preaching isn't because they wore jeans.

All that said, am I teaching my children to dress "appropriately" for job interviews? Yes. But I'm also making sure that they know that it's an unfortunate silliness that should stop because it's rooted in arrogance and prejudice. 

Bert Perry's picture

One of the comments is that testosterone is higher in "well attired" men.  Exactly how am I to believe that putting on a suit and tie is going to tell my testicles to up their output immediately?  This is one of those places where the data are really telling us that higher T men tend to go for power and authority (no surprise to those of us who went to high school, no?) and use the tools available to them to do so.  Those of us who are a bit "lower T" aren't all about that.  It's a classic example of selection bias.  We might note as well that it's documented that weight training is well known to up testosterone--so arguably, the same guys who were measured with higher T in slacks and a tie actually got that T while wearing sweats.

I have great reasons to wear wool slacks and dress shirts--I tend to like them.  They fit loosely, and I'm more comfortable because the natural fibers breathe.  They hide my physical flaws to a degree.  Paired with a nice belt, I'm not grabbing at my pants all day trying to keep them in place like I see often with the "jeggings" many teens wear, or tugging at my shirt to keep it covering my stomach.  

On the flip side, swap the wool and cotton out for polyester, and the semi-tailored fit for "off the rack" at Target or Kohl's, and that comfort equation is reversed, even though the "look" is very similar.  Well, unless you're Ron's Ed's  (oops) granddad or dad, who could tell at a glance that some barbarian put you in plastic clothes that don't fit.  :^)

Long story short; there are great reasons to dress in certain ways and not in others.  Let's be careful, however, about how we state our reasons, and especially as we attribute certain virtues and vices to clothing choices.  As John's comments illustrate, this kind of bias is one reason that a fair number of people are pretty much done with fundamentalism.  

Andrew K's picture

Something happened to me in my mid-30s where I suddenly began to think dressing up was kind of fun. I now have a collection of bowties and some nice vests and coats as well. I enjoy teaching in them, and students and other faculty always seem oddly appreciative. Hope I'm not becoming a dandy though...

Lee's picture

All fashion is a statement of identity; you're identifying with a certain segment of society, a certain culture, a social status, etc.  Much is harmless. Some is silly (parachute pants anyone?). A significant some has biblical parameters that should always be considered ("...attire of a harlot..." comes to mind).  Point being, fashion is and always will be in a state of flux.  However, that state of flux almost always carries some sort of identifying message.  As careful believers whose identity is Christ and His Gospel fashion choices, like so many other choices, must consistently bear this in mind.


Ron Bean's picture

I've had two conversations with a close friend about church attire. Both times my friend questioned my wisdom in being part of a church where coats and ties were rare attire and where, after 35+ years, I preached for the first time without a tie. As we discussed "proper" attire for church my friend said. "I believe God is more pleased with us when we wear our best to church." I suspect that his conviction is one that may be implied in practice by some.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

JD Miller's picture

I had a question about dress and behavior that came to my mind as I read one of the posts.  If wearing a suit and tie made me act differently toward my congregation than wearing a nice pair of black jeans and a buttoned shirt, then what would that look like?  If it meant that I better exemplified the fruits of the spirit, then I better go shopping, but if it caused me to be arrogant or aloof, then I better avoid it.  Part of the challenge is that we do not know how another person will react when they dress a certain way.  Therefore, I do not want to attempt to engineer behavior based on dress, but rather by preaching and teaching the word of God and submitting to the Holy Spirit.

Of course we could argue that we need to teach people that a suit and tie should remind them to act a certain way, but instead we could teach them that no matter what they wear they should act Christ like.  I want my congregation to act just as godly whether they are wearing a lab coat, a tool belt, a t shirt, or a suit.  Many of them would not be allowed to wear a suit for their job, but they should still be expected to act Christlike.

John E.'s picture

This thread gave me an idea for an article explaining why I don't 'dress up' for church. 

Note on fashion as identity: Lee, you make a good point. We do, however, want to be careful not to codify associations for all times and places. For example, I know a godly, fundamentalist pastor in his mid-seventies who believes that it is sinful for men to have beards. In his mind, beards are still associated with counter-culture movement of the 60's. I'll grant that it might have been unwise for a Christian man to have had a beard in the 60's (I don't know, I wasn't there and only know people's reactions based on what I'm told today), but that wisdom choice is different now. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

Years ago (late 70's, early 80's?) a popular book entitled "Dress for Success" was widely distributed.  The main point (as best I recall after all these years) was that those who aspire to advance in their career should observe what the most successful people in that career usually wear, and dress accordingly.  It made sense to me then, and still does today.  Dress does communicate, even though we have a hard time defining exactly what it says.  It makes an impression and conveys a message.  A lady in our church asked me how she could help her extremely talented husband do better in his career.  My response was to encourage him to dress more professionally.  He refused to do so, preferring his comfortable casual clothes, and he never reached his career potential.  To deny that clothes say anything defies experience and observation.  To try to dictate exactly what they do say or should say is over-reaching.  In our church, people are encouraged to dress as they prefer.  We have coats and ties, and we have casual attire, and hardly anybody notices which is which.  (But the Sunday I forgot my suit and tie, and preached in khaki pants and plaid shirt got everybody talking!)

G. N. Barkman

John E.'s picture

I agree that when interacting with finite humans it's foolish to expect them to interact with us solely on our terms. Even though it's an arbitrary social construct, if I wanted to work on Capitol Hill I would have to be willing to cut my hair and buy some suits. I've half-jokingly offered my services to a man in our church who is the Chief-of-Staff of a congressman. He's always complaining about having to send someone from his office to conduct Capitol tours for the congressman's constituents who are visiting DC. I told him that I'd be his unpaid intern with the sole job of conducting the tours (it sounds like a fun gig to me). My friend would actually take me up on it if I were willing to cut my hair and wear a suit. I'm not (plus, I don't really have the time). 

I also want to point out that if the Holy Spirit moved my family to a church in which all the men wore suits because there's an expectation that men wear suits to church, I wouldn't insist on my right to wear jeans and a flannel shirt. By God's grace, I'd prefer others and wear a suit. But I would need a lot of sanctification to not grumble about it every Sunday morning as I tied my tie. 

Larry Nelson's picture

as my church's Saturday evening service started, it was 82° and humid.  We had 627 people in attendance, many of whom wore shorts. 

At an IFB church down the road from us, I was once (as a visitor) scolded by an usher for being "improperly dressed" for church (while wearing tailored dress slacks, dress shoes, a collared, long-sleeved shirt, and a nice pullover sweater----but no suit jacket or tie).  I hate to think what anyone who would walk in wearing shorts would be told there.....  

G. N. Barkman's picture

82 sounds good to me.  It was 96 here in NC yesterday.  Thank God for air conditioning.

G. N. Barkman

Larry Nelson's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

82 sounds good to me.  It was 96 here in NC yesterday.  Thank God for air conditioning.

I was at a wedding in central Illinois a couple of weekends ago.  93 and quite humid.  The a/c in the church wasn't great.  I skipped the suit jacket.  Many men who didn't only wished they had.....

TylerR's picture

A church that dictates dress or looks down on men who don't wear a suit is making a mistake. At my church, people dress how they wish. I don't enforce a dress code. I do make the men wear a collared shirt if they're in front of the congregation. We had a 12 year old boy do Scripture reading two weeks ago, and I asked his mom to have him wear a polo shirt. That's about as dictatorial as things get with dress code at my church.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Ron Bean's picture

It's interesting to visit church web sites and see how they address clothing standards. I've found that a lot of churches don't have a statement and the churches that feel they need to have one usually express themselves by saying something like "You'll meet people wearing everything from coats and ties to business casual...". In my experience, these churches usually have more coats and ties and ladies dresses.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bert Perry's picture

...comes to mind here--OK, granted, Paul was addressing women specifically there, but note that Paul does not come out against "skimpy" attire, but rather says that a woman's beauty ought not consist of expensive attire and gold jewelry.  We men might ask whether our impact in ministry derives mostly from our attire, too, whether that's skinny jeans or bespoke, no?

Worth noting as well is that among musicians, attire like black tie was originally intended to prevent the musicians from becoming the show instead of the music--vestments of a responsible sort in the high churches served the same purpose.  Per the passage, if we're becoming the show, maybe a gut check is in order.  There are a number of fashion houses which, contrary to the stereotype and the attention-grabbing antics often seen on the runway, note that the goal of a good designer is to show the wearer, not the garment.  

Larry Nelson's picture

Ron Bean wrote:

It's interesting to visit church web sites and see how they address clothing standards. I've found that a lot of churches don't have a statement and the churches that feel they need to have one usually express themselves by saying something like "You'll meet people wearing everything from coats and ties to business casual...". In my experience, these churches usually have more coats and ties and ladies dresses.

Here's a type of pseudo non-dress code yet actual dress code I've seen on a few occasions on church websites:

Step #1: Start by essentially telling prospective visitors that you're fine with them coming-as-they-are.  Say things like "We're glad you're considering worshipping with us" and "we want you to feel right at home."  Tell them something along the lines of what they wear is secondary to the fact that they are there.  Your church welcomes visitors, whether they arrive in suits or dresses or jeans and t-shirts.....   (Belaboring that point.)

Step #2: After making a lengthy point of elaborating how nonchalant they are regarding however visitors are attired, such a church then completely contradicts their initial welcome to visitors by concluding with something like this: "But just so you know, our people typically dress in their "Sunday best."  (In other words: "Ignore what we said in the first few sentences.  Formal attire IS what we truly expect.")

Larry Nelson's picture

4. How should I dress?

Our ministry leaders and church family dress in traditional “Sunday” dress.  We would prefer that you not dress casually, but, instead, wear your "Sunday-Best"!


How should I dress?

There is not a set dress code at Bible Baptist Church for members or guests. Most of our church family attire is traditional “Sunday best”, as we believe very strongly that God deserves our best in every area and casualness doesn’t promote the Biblical attitude that God’s people should have when they meet to worship. Regardless of what you wear, we want you to feel welcome with God’s people as we meet with the Lord.



While there is no dress code to attend Emmaus Road Baptist Church, you will find many of us dressed up in “Sunday best” – suits and ties, and modest dresses & skirts.  We believe that we honor God and prepare our hearts to worship by cleaning up and wearing our best.

TylerR's picture


My church has this on the website - but we actually mean it (honest!):

We don’t enforce a dress code, so don’t worry about “looking right.” Nobody will frown at you if you don’t have a tie, grimace if you don’t wear a jacket, or stare if you aren’t wearing a dress. Honest.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist