Have we turned into a nation of slobs? This question has been increasingly bugging me for a while now. But what got me going this time was an entertaining column by Pilot Editor John Nagy that appeared in this space back on Oct. 3. In it, John told of the surprise and frustration he experienced while trying to buy his son a suit to wear at John’s approaching wedding.
We’re talking Durham here. And not Walmart or Kmart, but elite places like Brooks Brothers. Or Nordstrom. To John’s amazement (and mine to read it), you can no longer find suits in such stores — only mix-and-match tops and bottoms known as “separates.” Clerks at a couple of places told him they were “moving away” from suits.
“The gentleman’s suit has long been a ubiquitous piece of fashion,” John wrote. “Styles came and went, but generally if you weren’t building skyscrapers or riding ranges or fighting fires, a man would wear a suit to work. Even into the early 1970s, men wore suits to ball games, church and when traveling.”
That’s hard to believe now, especially for the younger generations, but it’s true. I just paused while writing this to look into my closet. There are four suits hanging in there, not to mention a number of sport coats — hardly any of which have seen the light of day in the past decade or so, except maybe for an occasional funeral or wedding.
My closet also has a rack from which hang a couple of dozen nice, colorful silk neckties, which I’ve practically forgotten how to tie, though I used to do it at least once a day. (Speaking of silk, remember when women routinely wore silk stockings — and later, nylon ones? How often does that happen now?)
As recently as 25 years ago, when we moved here to Southern Pines, I swear we guys always wore suits and ties to church. But in recent months, I have been surprised to look out across the congregation of our beloved Emmanuel Episcopal on occasion and see some guys in little more than shorts and short-sleeved shirts. I’m sure God doesn’t care. Still …
Or go back a century or so and look at some of the old photos on the wall at the Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Southern Pines. What you see is routine sidewalk traffic or people gathered at the train station — with the men all wearing suits and hats, and the women in well-groomed dresses and stylish hats and high-heeled shoes.
Speaking of our downtown: One thing that has also caught my attention is the soldiers and officers from Fort Bragg who can often be seen walking up and down Broad Street in camouflage fatigues. Way back when I served in the Army, the rule was that you could never wear those extra-casual fatigues off base. Dress uniforms only. But no more. Besides, what they wear is no reflection on the selfless duty these men and women perform.
While growing up in Carthage, Mo., back in the 1950s, I worked on a couple of occasions as an usher in the Tiger Movie Theatre. And the dress code for that job included a suit and tie, since that was what all the male attendees routinely wore. Compare that to what you see on movie audiences (if you ever go) these days. And what’s an usher, anyway?
When I think of my mother back in my childhood, I picture her spending seemingly endless hours at the ironing board, carefully pressing all those clothing items for us family members. How often do you see that going on these days?
Back then, my brother and I frequently spent time polishing our shoes to a fine shine. In fact, I remember when barbershops and downtown corners routinely included busy shoeshine stands, where lots of guys apparently made a pretty good living. Kind of hard to imagine now, huh?
Oh, well. Enough. As John Nagy wrote about his failure to find a suit for his son, “Maybe it’s all just a grasp at the thin air of nostalgia, a reach to hold close a past that is simply passed.”
No doubt. Still, in my more reflective moments, I can’t help wondering what all this says about us as a society — if in fact it says anything or is simply a sign of the times. I would welcome your thoughts on that, Dear Reader.
Steve Bouser is the retired editor and Opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at email@example.com.