People at the age of around 40 today mostly scoffed at the wrinkled khakis of our high-school colleagues and scoured the thrift stores in search of the most non-casual clothes we could find—wasp-waist wool dresses, opera gloves, and evening bags. By our mid-20s, we realized that we no longer wanted to put on uncomfortable clothes and stay in them for hours. For me, casual is not the opposite of formal. It is the opposite of confined.
As Americans, our casual style uniformly stresses comfort and practicality—two words that have gotten little attention in the history of fashion but have transformed how we live. A hundred years ago, the closest thing to casual was sportswear—knitted golf dresses, tweed blazers, and oxford shoes.
But as the century progressed, casual came to encompass everything from worker’s garb (jeans) to army uniforms. Americans’ quest for a low-key style has stomped on entire industries: millinery, hosiery, eveningwear, fur, and the list goes on. It has infiltrated every hour of the day and every space from the boardroom to the classroom to the courtroom.
Americans dress casually because clothes are freedom—freedom to choose how we present ourselves to the world; freedom to blur the lines between man and woman, old and young, rich and poor. The rise of casual style directly undermined millennia-old rules that dictated noticeable luxury for the rich and functioning work clothes for the poor.
Until a little more than a century ago, there were very few ways to disguise your social class. You wore it—literally—on your sleeve. Today, CEOs wear sandals to work and white suburban kids tweak their L.A. Raiders hat a little too far to the side. Compliments of global capitalism, the clothing market is flooded with options to mix-and-match to create a personal style.