Why do middle-class men feel confident dressing as slobs today?

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Why do middle-class men feel confident dressing as slobs today?, Steve Sailer asks:

Their grandfathers would have been anxious that merchants would snub them as bad credit risks if they went about their errands dressed like California Gold Rush prospectors. Why aren’t we?

Because we have credit cards.

Americans always dressed less formally than Europeans, but our ancestors worried about looking respectable. Because of the country’s sprawling size, American commercial life was peculiarly vulnerable to traveling con men. Judging a man by how spiffily he dressed still left businesses susceptible to the occasional natty fraud like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, but most criminals can’t be bothered with routine aesthetic upkeep.

Today, though, if a guest trashes his hotel room, it just goes on his Visa card. As Hunter S. Thompson discovered to his delight in Las Vegas in 1971, the modern credit system had made his paranoia about impressing desk clerks obsolete.

Commenter Nergol prefers another explanation:

I prefer Oswald Spengler’s explanation, which was that in rising cultures, the poor imitate the mannerisms of the rich, whereas in declining cultures, the rich imitate the manners of the poor. Check out Dan Carlin’s description of Clodius Pulcher in his excellent recent podcast series on the end of the Roman Republic to see where that’s come up in history before.


  1. Remnant says:

    They’re both right. (Who says there can only be one factor?)

    To put a slightly different spin on what Nergol is saying, it isn’t so much the rich and middle class emulating the lower classes, as it is the rich and middle class fearing the lower classes and trying to fly under the radar. Why project an image of being rich if that can lead to, inter alia, getting mugged, getting sued, getting beaten up, getting mocked, etc.?

    Another angle on the same phenomenon is that urbanization contributed to this trend. If the rich and even just well-to-do are thrown together with the great unwashed everyday, why draw attention to yourself by dressing “above” everyone else? Again, it is a kind of camouflage that allows the prey to blend in with the predators.

  2. Chris says:

    I dress comfortably. I never felt comfortable “dressing up” and now I don’t have to. I like dressing this way.

    Why does everything have to be analyzed?

  3. Matthew Walker says:


    I can speak only of affluent male urbanites in NYC and Boston, but the more affluent they are, the more extreme care they take not to be mistaken for proles. Even when they are untidy, they take extreme care not to be mistaken for proles.

    They are far more afraid of losing status in the eyes of their peers than they are of being robbed.

  4. Anomaly UK says:

    Good point from Remnant.

    I had to explain to a ten-year-old boy a few months ago why he shouldn’t walk across town on Sunday morning dressed in a three-piece suit and bow tie.

    Such dress is an assertion of superiority. That is all very well, but you have to be able to back it up should the proles take offense. Only a few decades ago, protecting the well-dressed classes from the hoi polloi was a policing priority, and the claim to superiority implied by upper-class dress was also a claim to protection.

    I would challenge Remnant’s second point though. The argument has been well-made recently, by Half Sigma, that the geographical separation of rich and poor is a very recent phenomenon, driven by the elimination of formal status distinctions. In the past, rich and poor lived in close proximity, whether in town or country, but in different styles. Now that formal egalitarianism has removed the privileges of the rich, the only way for them to live a better lifestyle than the poor is to physically move away from them.

  5. Remnant says:

    Ultimately, I think there are a lot of different factors at work. Also, the “where” of it matters a lot: the phenomenon in, say, Dallas, may be very different from what it is in New York. Likewise, Paris (France) versus Los Angelos, etc. etc. Also, on the issue of rich and poor living in proximity, whether there is an observed social hierarchy will also matter. In a well-ordered society, with a clear hierarchy, different classes can be in proximinity without conflict.

    By coincidence, I came across the following while (finally) finishing up Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn To Decadence”, and since the topic is directly on point I thought I would quote it in full, despite the length:

    “Casualness took many forms, and to wear jeans that were torn and stained was casual, but only at the start. When one could go to a shop and buy the jeans ready-made with spots and patches, cut short and unraveled at the edges, a new intention was evident. When young women put on an old sweater, pearls, and evening pumps together, when young men went about in suits of which the sleeves covered their hands and the legs of the trousers were trod underfoot, they made known a rejection of elegance, a denial of feminine allure, and a sympathy for the ‘disadvanged.’ Such cloths were not cheap; their style was anti-propriety, anti-bourgeois; it implied siding with the poor, whose clothes are hand-me-downs in bad condition. To appear unkempt, undressed, and for perfection unwashed, is the key signature of the whole age. As in earlier times the striving was to look and act like ‘quality,’ whether aristocrat or upper bourgeois, now the effort was to look like one marching along the bottom line of society. The hitherto usual motive behind self-adornment – vanity – had the advantage of concealing physical blemishes, thereby shoring regard for the onlookers’ sensibilities. The reverse, the self purposely uncared for, expressed at once demotic anti-snobbery and demotic egotism.” pp. 781-2, J. Barzun, “From Dawn To Decadence” (HarperCollins, 2000)

  6. Sconzey says:

    Fascinating discussion. I think Remnant hits the nail on the head in eir quote. It’s what I call “poverty chic.”

    The status-sensitive face two conflicting drives: to signal their sensitivity to the plight of the poor, and to signal their wealth and taste and sensitivity to culture and fashion.

    The conscious imitation of an impoverished style of dress comes not out of a desire to camouflage as one of the lower classes but to prove that one is “humbler than thou.” Wealth and fashion consciousness is signaled by spending a lot of money on these faux-poor clothes.

    There’s an interesting syzygy that’s churning in my head. There’s a TV show that’s been on in the UK called “Living With The Amish” where UK teens spend six weeks living with various Amish families, dressing and working alongside them. Almost uniformly, the teens revered Amish asceticism, asserting that they (the teens) had “too many things”


  7. Wobbly says:

    Derelicte! [from Zoolander]

  8. Isegoria says:

    Sconzey, did you just drop a Spivak pronoun on us?

  9. Sconzey says:

    I’d guess Remnant was a dude; but only statistically. What choice did I have? ;)

  10. Remnant says:

    I am in fact a he. And to clear up any other potential confusion from Sconzey’s sentence containing the pronoun in question: Jacques Barzun is also a he. :)

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