Jim Mullen

It used to be that convenience stores at popular summer beaches had signs on the front door that read “No shirt, no shoes, no entry.” It was right next to the sign that read “Bathroom for customers only.” Now the sign on the door says, “No shirt, no shoes, no problem.” They still won’t let you use the bathroom unless you buy something. Some things never change. But some things do. The “No shirt, no shoes, no problem” sign is now on the door of my stockbroker’s office. It doesn’t say anything about the bathroom policy. I don’t know that I want a man not wearing a shirt or shoes managing my money. What if he’s not doing it because it makes him feel comfortable, but because he can’t afford a shirt and shoes?

Our definition of what is casual and what is not seems to be on a sliding scale. A few years ago, there was a brouhaha at the White House because some young women went on the tour of the historic building wearing flip-flops. Too casual? Well, summer in D.C. is like being in a sauna — without all the health benefits. You feel sticky and smelly at 6 a.m., and that’s the coolest you’re going to feel all day. It’s not sightseeing, it’s sweatseeing.

And at least the White House tourists had some kind of footwear. I wish the people who sat next to me on my last plane trip were wearing something on their feet. I’ve got to get a raise. I can’t fly coach anymore. I long for the chic of premium economy class, where the better people sit. They still take off their shoes, but they use Odor Eaters. It must be like heaven up there. I can’t even imagine what it’s like in first class, where the flight attendants give passengers foot massages with fragrant oils and the inflight audio is “Angels Singing.”

I’m not a snob — I just grew up in a different time, a time before Casual Friday. In the early ‘60s, you would wear your best clothes to get on an airplane, to go to another country, to go to church, to go to any restaurant that wasn’t a cup-o’-joe diner. In the late ‘50s, college men wore camel hair blazers, white shirts and skinny ties, and that was considered pretty casual. You certainly wouldn’t wear something that casual when you got out of college to work at an office. In grade school, we had to wear a uniform shirt and a tie. And that was in the first grade.

Jeans and T-shirts were for yard work and play only; you’d only see people wearing sweatpants at athletic events. To go to the grocery store in sweatpants and a T-shirt was unthinkable.

Even Elvis and the Beatles wore suits in the early days. Show-business suits, but still, not just random stuff they had pulled from the closet. They were always natty dressers, and people imitated their haircuts and clothes as they changed over the years.

Fashion rarely comes from the pages of glossy, expensive high-fashion magazines. People tend to wear what the people they admire are wearing. Pop stars, sports stars, movie stars and television stars are where many trends start. Vogue has never done a cover with people sporting green-and-purple hair, nose rings and a sleeve of tattoos, and yet it’s an undeniable trend. If you don’t start seeing Megan Rapinoe haircuts within a week, I’d be surprised.

I’ve never seen a man wearing cargo shorts on the cover of Esquire, but every other man on my plane was wearing them. So where did casual Monday through Friday come from? The internet, because it allows you to work at home in your pajamas? Was it seeing Steve Jobs give keynote addresses wearing jeans and a $200 black mock turtleneck?

No, I think it’s that our status symbols have changed. Wearing “business clothes” means “I have to wear this outfit for some reason.” Being casual says, “I can get away with this for some reason.” Me? I have to wear these pajamas. They make me.

Contact Jim Mullen at mullen.jim@gmail.com.

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