Informal dress and social mobility, a Sicilian perspective

Roberto emails me:

There is another aspect that corroborates your theory on how casual dress is somehow connected to less mobility. Dressing in a casual but very good way is economically and “socially” expensive. When I was a young associate at the biggest law firm in Rome, casual friday was the time when my Sicilian provincial middle-lower class background was most transparent. I didn’t have the money for smart but impressive casual clothing. But above all I didn’t have the cultural and social capital to know how to dress casual in the right way. My casual dressing was made of nerdy, unfashionable and cheap clothes: you could immediately say that I haven’t accomplished anything. And I didn’t even know that there was a “rich” way to dress casual. A decent suit and tie is not that expensive but, above all, is socially and culturally accessible in a very easy, standard and replicable way.

Perhaps this is a problem that affects women more seriously than men, exactly for the same reason: women’s formal clothing is not as standard and replicable as men’s. For women, even formal business dressing reveals a lot of background.

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Observe Americans in any busy American airport and one can't tell the difference between the common people and the elite. Why are Americans slobs? I'm old enough to remember when one could tell the difference in class by the hat men would wear. The hat! I've worn the same style clothing since I was 12. I'm often complimented for it, which makes little sense. I tell people that if they don't know how to dress, watch Breakfast at Tiffany's.

A decent surrogate is what kind of electronics or suitcase they have. A nice tablet and smart rolling bag (4 wheels) that fits overhead tell you someone is likely a college educated, upper middle class professional. Warby Parker glasses indicate the person is probably an asshole and a millennial.

Agreed about the Warby Parker glasses. I recall when rolling suitcases were popular, and then not because they communicated, well, I'm not sure since they are very efficient. As for millennials, they don't talk to strangers, they don't even make eye contact with strangers. I'm not sure why, but it separates my generation from them. On the other hand, my rule is don't talk to people on airplanes or in elevators. People say the damnedest things on airplanes and elevators.

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There is something really wrong with people who put stuff in overhead bins.

I don't think there are any nice tablets. There are kind of so-so tablets, some of which are expensive, but I don't think people are using them much anymore. I suppose some people have nice laptops, but that just says their employer is rich if they are corporate issue.

As it should be, there is literally no way to tell.

Fair enough. My perspective may be a bit dated. It is notable and perhaps stagnation-related that clear signals of class/wealth/whatever are becoming less prevalent. Good, too..

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> There is something really wrong with people who put stuff in overhead bins.

Um, what?

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American airports feel like a uniquely bad place for non-casual wear. You're often walking a lot, which recommends sneakers. You also have to take your shoes off going through TSA checkpoints, which, again, not something that you'd want to do with oxfords. So that's going to drag down the formality of your whole outfit.

Beyond that, who cares what you look like at an airport? There's no one you need to impress there.

Also, you're going to have to squeeze yourself into a tiny space 17" wide and 30" long for hours and hours in direct physical contact with various strangers. Geometry demands pajamas and not any kind of nice clothing.

When airplane seats were 21" wide with 40" pitch, sure people dressed up nice. Airlines don't have seats like that anymore.

Those kind of airplane seats still exist at the front of the plane - along with complementary pyjamas and changing facilities. As such, business wear is a good way to demarcate the business/first class passenger from hoi polloi.

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All of that applies in Italian airports too, but people still make a point of dressing well because either (a) they'll be meeting someone they want to impress at the other side or (b) if you're going to dress down, at least do so with style.

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Like a typical American, you're assuming that people do things for instrumental reasons (i.e. the need to impress) and maybe that's true at some primordial subconscious / genetic driven level.

Another interpretation is "Sprezzatura" (effortless effort). The Italian's don't really have to try. It's like breathing: they are used to being stylish as a cultural thing. Emphasis here is on "not trying" and doing things "for its own sake"

I know that's hard to understand from a slobby, poorly dressed, everything reducible to signalling American perspective

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If you have to take your shoes off, you're doing it wrong.
May I suggest a Trusted Traveler Card? Here is a list of the eligible countries
https://www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/global-entry/international-arrangements

Please note that Brazil is NOT on the this list. CBP is right to assume that they are not a trustworthy country.

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Taking your shoes off at the TSA checkpoint illustrates that you haven't paid up for a KTN (Known Traveler Number) and thus proves you're low class.

I fart in your general direction.

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Why are Americans slobs? I

They don't give a good goddamn what 'rayward' thinks of them.

Since 1960, passenger-miles flown per year per inhabitant has increased more than 11-fold. You're corraling a great many people who have little occasion to put on formal clothing and own little, a great many people who are not traveling for business (which was the norm in 1960), and a great many people who have flown so often it's not an occasion anymore.

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I'm not sure that is true, or the trueness is conditioned about geographic socioeconomic rules. For example, when I worked in Connecticut, literally every man wore Bill's Khakis and Brooks Brothers on the weekends. My Gap and Banana Republic wardrobe indicated outsider status in ways that took some time to discover. But if you saw us at the airport, it would just be a bunch of guys in chinos and polo shirts!

I was going to make a similar observation, but mine is not as detailed as yours. I once went to a weekend meeting of college alumni; realizing that I needed something casual but not slobby I opted for khaki pants and a polo shirt -- and indeed every other male at that meeting was wearing the same thing. But I didn't go so far as to peer at the brands.

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'Observe Americans in any busy American airport and one can’t tell the difference between the common people and the elite.'

This not true at Dulles or JFK.

Wrong in any airport. I am in O'Hare now, and class signals are everywhere. They change constantly and are hard for most of us to decipher, but the next time you walk through first class with fellow group four passengers, observe the differences in dress and mannerisms.

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You don't see the elite. They are waiting in the airline lounges, not in the concourses.

This. The elite don't mingle in airport lounges, they take their car directly to their private hanger.

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Cargo shorts are always appropriate. 365 days a year.

When we lived in Oz there were still businessmen who dressed the old way in shorts and knee-socks. I liked it: with a good shirt it was smart and practical.

The thing I loathe about business dress is the tie. If only we all had the sense to adopt the cravat: infinitely more comfortable if you must hide your neck.

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This guy Americans.

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Always. Crooked coastal elites need to get with the cargo shorts program.

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If cargo shorts make sense then cargo pants would as well. The shorts outnumber the pants 99-1. Ergo, the shorts are a fad that will hopefully disappear in time. It might take awhile, though. The idiotic backward ball cap seems to be hanging on.

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I'm going to add that LL Bean has a fly fishing shirt that is the collared shirt equivalent of the cargo short.

I wear both every day in the summer.

link

https://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/20622?feat=507930-GN1&page=men-s-tropicwear-shirt-short-sleeve&csp=f

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Italians are probably the only country in the world (bar maybe upper class Brits) that would worry about their casual clothing giving away thir plebeian origin. I worked with a lot of Italians and they are the only nationality where a male none gay friend suggested clothes shopping as an after work activity.

Many Turkish non gay men would like clothes shopping too.

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French men too, they probably wouldn't consider it a social thing.

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Flip it the other way, American heterosexual men are perhaps the only ones in the world who are worried that dressing too well is a threat to their sexuality. That's the Italian view anyway.

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In America you can do midrange polo shirt, jeans, and running shoes for a very solid middle class casual Friday. Italian boy probably wants Gucci.

Big American law firms are like Italian ones. There's so much money sloshing around at the top that a lot of the partners become clothes horses as conspicuous consumption. Ambitious associates follow suit. Polo shirts are unheard-of.

Acknowledged. I am sure many elite institutions consider themselves above the "solidly middle class." Of course I am not sure how that plays with "complacency."

I suspect that if you have a designated day to dress in unison in a formally less formal way .. you might be beyond complacent.

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We seem to have forgotten a simple and fundamental lesson as to why school uniforms were so important to fostering social mobility in so many countries.

As a former military member I find myself missing uniforms for work!

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Brazilian male business clothes are widely considered the best in the world. Evidently, character is much more important than clothes, but why not have both?

http://www.camisariacolombo.com.br/roupas/masculino/terno?O=OrderByReleaseDateDESC&PS=48

These just look like ordinary suits. Am I missing something?

The colors are somewhat more lively, the style is smarter and the texture seems smoother.

That's lively to you?

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Yes. Most Brazilians like lively colors and bols styles, unlike foreigners, who, in my experience, tend to opt for drab colors and dull fashions.

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Lively: http://youfail.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Breaking-Bad-Saul-suits.jpg

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Not lively, except maybe the yellow or pink ones. Most men in Brazil do not wear pink ir mustard-like clothes.

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Yes, the urge to play act as a Brazilian when you are really an obese, pale divorced middle school social studies professor in Janesville.

I really love how the fingments of your imagination are both detailed and prosaic. And I guess, if I were American, I would pretend to be sometging better, Brazilian.

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Point, TR.

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It is rather a goal.

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Those jackets and shirts are poorly fitted to the models, the sleeve lengths are all over the map.

Brazil is hot, so the clothes can't be slavishly fit the body, there must be lots of space betweens the body and the suit. Also, everyone knows how sleeves look like, no one need models for that.

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Not to take the piss, but "widely"? Have I been living under a rock?

Maybe you live a sheltered life.

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I truly don't mean offense, but that is a new stereotype to me.

Brazilian: https://www.google.com.br/search?q=president+temer&num=40&client=tablet-android-samsung&prmd=niv&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjvw4G6xtzTAhUJh5AKHZs_CHMQ_AUICigC&biw=800&bih=1280#imgrc=j8Ol3oX8BL-qXM:

American: https://www.google.com.br/search?q=donald:trump:hat&num=40&client=tablet-android-samsung&prmd=sinv&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjr45bixtzTAhXDTJAKHTHEAUAQ_AUICigC&biw=800&bih=1280#tbm=isch&q=donald+trump:hat&imgrc=bXZvUT11ZJxazM:

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Brazilian: https://www.google.com.br/search?q=ruy+barbosa&num=40&client=tablet-android-samsung&prmd=minv&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjVzaqdx9zTAhUFhZAKHf_ZAA8Q_AUICigC&biw=800&bih=1280#imgrc=jNKAtxqmqAC_wM:

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American: https://www.google.com.br/search?q=ruy+barbosa&num=40&client=tablet-android-samsung&prmd=minv&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjVzaqdx9zTAhUFhZAKHf_ZAA8Q_AUICigC&biw=800&bih=1280#imgrc=jNKAtxqmqAC_wM:

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Brazilian: https://www.google.com.br/search?client=tablet-android-samsung&biw=800&bih=500&tbm=isch&sa=1&ei=SG8OWbqAB4q3wATdmqXwDQ&q=janio+quadros+safari&oq=janio+quadros+safari&gs_l=mobile-gws-img.3..35i39k1.70713.77536.0.78085.31.26.1.0.0.0.382.6404.0j3j13j8.24.0....0...1c.1j4.64.mobile-gws-img..10.21.5652.3..0j0i30k1j0i67k1j0i8i30k1j0i24k1.pk5S-Reg7Sw#imgrc=GQhVO7VbAZv58M:

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for casual wears its the kind of foot wears which tells your class

Footwear?

You mean you wear something on your feet? Why not go barefoot? I do. Everyday.

+1 bare feet are the ultimate in conspicuous consumption.

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I love living in Manhattan, and I don't mind that they frown on cargo shorts, but I do not like the expensive, prescriptive casual clothes. My friend spent $2000 on a few days' worth of casual clothes (including $500 shoes) that get him called "faggot" when he wears any of it at home in Virginia.

Where I went to college was full of rich white kids from cities, and they could not stand cargo shorts. They didn't understand that if I wore what they wore back home to Montana I would be called a fag, precisely because caring so much about clothing is faggish. (note fag =/= gay)

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My friend spent $2000 on a few days’ worth of casual clothes (including $500 shoes) that get him called “faggot” when he wears any of it at home in Virginia.

I'm in the Valley multiple x a year and I've never heard that term used in a public place. I'm not sure I've heard it at all since about 1984.

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Average Manhattanite = civilized. Average Virginian = savage. Call the prescriptive casual clothes part of the cost of civilization. Would you rather be surrounded by people in artful clothes or brutes in cargo shorts?

Brutes in cargo shorts, dude.

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Americans in G. Washington's time were fastidious about formal etiquette, precisely because it is democratic. If you can't learn the rules, you can't belong.

+1

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Miss Manners has long agreed with Roberto's point about women's business attire.

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Don't standardized suits for women exist now? They don't look nice in my opinion but they do seem mostly the same. Maybe a woman would care to educate us.

Now would be the right time for Hillary to start her own brand of women's business clothing. It would be a slam-dunk success.

It's spelled slam-drunk.

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http://s3.amazonaws.com/posttv-thumbnails-prod/02-28-2017/t_1488292343497_name_TylerCowen1.jpg

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I agree with ChrisA. This story simply confirms not only that Italian males care about clothing a lot, but that this care increases as one moves further south. Sicilians dress up a lot more than do Tuscans or Romans. It takes a Sicilian male to get really worked up about how his casual clothing was not just right. A hilarious post actually.

I'm not sure that I agree. I spend a lot of time in the north of Italy and I see a huge focus among men on clothes/presentation/la bella figura.
The difference I see is that in the south men dress more flashily and, to my eye, they come of as a bit uncouth (that said, I dress so badly that people move away from me at bus stops in Italy).
In fact, I actually see this a lot in Italy where working class people will drop a ton of money on clothes, but they can't quite pull it off. Really, that's what this is about - the difficulty in absorbing and reflecting the tacitly communicated norms of a group to which you are not born.
I'd add that in the US, everyone tends to think that their opinion is as good as anyone's. Thus, in clothing, furniture, and design in general we have a kind of race to the bottom. Italians are at least willing to entertain the idea that they might need help on aesthetic choices and they discuss the "whys" of what works and what doesn't.

More and more Italians are dressing like Americans as American culture is ubiquitous and seems to be overpowering all others. In the past, say the '70's and 80's, it was unheard of for an Italian male older than 12 or so to go out in public in shorts. Now, shorts have become acceptable in public and Nike's and Adidas's are everywhere. Torn jeans are all over Italy as well and have become fashionable for young men and women.

Suits are still worn for business, but less so than in the past. The whole Italian fashion scene seems to be waning..

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Yeah, I am not sure that being from Milano is a good sign of caring less about clothing than being from Sicily, at least based on the anecdata of having worked with one man from Milano.

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So is it time for Ban the Brogue?

Or perhaps they should move Casual Friday to Thursday and call it Sophisticated Casual Thursday and then have a Genuinely Casual Friday instead?

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This observation about casual clothing reinforces the point that the more explicit and clear the rules and expected behaviours are, the easier it is for outsiders to conform enough to be taken seriously and advance based on their true merits.

To spot the higher classes in an airport, look for people with well-used leather luggage without wheels and no visible branding on their clothes.

http://www.angelfire.com/hi/littleprince/chapter4.html

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No wheels?

Why? Because like a palanquin it shows you're so rich you can afford outmoded products?

Because it's the one that your grandfather spent the equivalent of a worker's salary on 75 years ago and they don't make 'em like they used to.

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The most successful people don't care how they look, think about Gates. There is nothing anyone can do about looking like a slob and basically no advantage to dressing well. The stock market sure doesn't care. At an airport the airlines would kill anyone out of sheer stupidity no matter what they wear and the TSA are less obnoxious to people who dress like a TSA person does off duty.

Of course, rich people have their own plane and don't go in the terminal. They won't dress any better but you can spot them paying 50k for jet fuel.

"The most successful people don’t care how they look, think about Gates."

This is mostly a nerd phenomenon. People outside the worlds of technology, academia and quantitative hedge funds still feel the need to dress to impress.

I'm sure some people dress-to-impress. Others are simply observing canons of formality.

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The most successful people don’t care how they look, think about Gates.

If you look at pictures of him taken before and after his marriage, you'll see Melinda cared enough to get him cleaned up and tidy. If I'm not mistaken, Michael Dell is coat-and-tie by default. Paul Allen is given to coats or coat-and-tie, even though he's a bachelor.

Larry Summers also started tucking his shirt in after he got married. Of course he also started gunning for positions such as Treasury Secretary and President of Harvard, so that may've altered his clothing choice too.

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I had two Sicilian-American friends.

One was a clothes horse. He was on speed dial with the managers of three clothing stores. He had the biggest collection of watches and shoes I have ever seen. He was a sales manager.

The other could care less about clothes. He was a very successful surgeon who away from surgery could care less about his clothes. T-shirts, gym shoes (Converse, the same style he wore in High School), a Timex watch that was a gift from his young daughter, etc Don't get me wrong he had expensive suits for conferences, if he was a speaker, but most of the time he just didn't care much.

I do remember when I was in grad school and I was told to dress business casual for an event. I had no idea what that meant. But I did know that I wasn't showing up like some preppy from the club. I didn't fit in.

I still hate to spend money on status clothes. My wife thankfully is the same, for the most part. We keep our cars ten years. We only spend 5% of our income on housing. We prefer quality inexpensive ethnic restaurants to the flashy ambience of more expensive places. We travel more then most but tend to go on the cheap there too. We are wealthy enough, thankfully, not to really care that much about status things. (however, to be honest, we did spend more on our children's clothing, education, etc then our own.)

Our net worth would put us in the elite by most measures. I don't really care if social climbers think I am not trendy enough.

But even I notice that people too often dress for a flight the way people used to dress for a Greyhound bus trip. The trashy way some people dress is, I must admit, a bit, I don't know the right word, maybe coarse. I would not place them into common and elite categories. Perhaps a better classification system is needed.

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I'm curious whether this applies to California.

No. It does not apply to California. Cheap and uncoordinated casual is acceptable and normal for rich and poor alike.

Wearing a suit at all will get you stared at and people will assume you're a lawyer. And maybe spit on you.

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http://paulgraham.com/cities.html

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I once attended a bankruptcy hearing for a big company that was falling apart fast. There were squads of lawyers from different firms -- some for the bank, some for the unions, some for the secured creditors, some for the unsecured creditors. Each group of lawyers came from a different firm.

You could tell the firms apart by the clothes -- the cut of the suit, the color of the tie, the type of shoes, the briefcases -- and even the haircuts and eyeglasses. Law firms, like other organizations, have internal cultures and these are expressed in public settings. It didn't seem like snobbery (Americans are not clotheshorses, generally) but perhaps a subtle signalling of team affiliation. You could see how such a style would form as people worked together over years.

In hierarchical organizations, there are general rules. The greatest of these is: Don't wear a more expensive suit or watch than the boss does. For women, the variation is: Never be more stylish than the company diva, whether you report to her or not.

The greatest of these is: Don’t wear a more expensive suit or watch than the boss does.

Which conveniently ties into the 47th Rule of Acquisition: don't trust a man wearing a better suit than your own.

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I think this is a very good observation made by Roberto. My impression is that a law firm in Italy might be one place in the world where this observation becomes most obvious, which is perhaps how he could articulate the observation with such clarity. In my city on casual Friday you could actually be able to pick out the second generation Italians by their dress, but controlling for that, you could also find the social class gradient described although it is a bit nuanced.

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Since eons, everybody knwos the rule : dress like the cattle you want to blend in, not like your mother told you to

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It is not only in Italy but in many European countries that people still dress to impress. I give Image trainings for young professionals starting a job in Portugal and for instance in law firms and banking if you do not dress for the part you will not have the same opportunities as all the other candidates. Casual friday is the day when everyone knows if you have good taste or not . Because as Robert says, "A decent suit and tie is not that expensive but, above all, is socially and culturally accessible in a very easy, standard and replicable way." You do not need to be rich to look good instead of slopy. Instead of buying many cheap clothes smart young executives should invest in a professional wardrobe that will age well.

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Could you stifle the signaling problem by just wearing a suit and tie on casual Friday? I guess that could show you’re not really a team player, into doing the stuff everyone else is in to doing. I guess you could just dress in a suit and tie all the time and just say, ‘This is what I do. This is my eccentricity.’

I sometimes wonder if I should care more about the signalling stuff. My toddler goes to daycare at a nice daycare and I notice that the other kids don’t seem to wear shirts with words printed on them, which I read in Paul Fussell’s book “Class”, is a sign of higher class, whereas words on shirts is a sign of lower class. Being aware of this, I still kind of don’t care if my kid has a shirt with words printed on it.

I don’t know if signalling is really what is going on with the kids’ clothes at the daycare, but if it is, I just feel some sense of--well, I just kind of shrug at it and say I don’t care. Maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t know.

Signalling is definitely going on although it certainly isn't happening at a conscious level. It's not as if their parents are thinking "kid must wear shirts with no words to communicate that kid is not lower class status." These are just behavioral norms, which may be partly informed by aesthetic considerations (plain colored shirt = lower risk of violating basic rules of aesthetics vs garish printed shirt with big words)

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Definitely jives with my Millennial experience. "Smart casual" is a much harder look to pull off than "suit and tie." True, I can't wear a suit as nice as the CEO, but I can still look presentable relatively easily.

Casual, man, that's just a massive pain in the tuckus. There are some basic ground rules, but it's a game you would not know unless you grew in yuppie land. Dark jeans, nice shirt (no collar), sleek blazer, and some non-decorated boots.
V-neck jumper and button-down dress isn't entirely played out in the Midwest yet.

Thankfully, my business is casual, and actual casual, which means we do not try to out-dress each other. Ill-fitting clothing, jeans, loose dress shirts, it's all good.

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There is a company called MM LaFleur and there whole business is to help women navigate this incredibly difficult puzzle of how to dress well. They tell me "You are a smart successful woman. Stop wasting so many hours a year trying to figure out this disaster of a fashion scene. We'll do that for you and you can focus on your job." The pieces are expensive - ex. $200 for a dress. But even as a low income grad student, I have sometimes paid up because I would rather be solving other puzzles.

+1. Agree. It took me several seasons of observation, as well as the helpful comments on sites like Corporette, to work out how to dress for the office and what would 'fit in' with peers in my region (New England, quite idiosyncratic) on the weekend.

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It does require a lot of self education and a lot of effort to look expensive, but it can be done. So much of it is also about fitness and weight as well, at least for women. Also for women, on a casual day the shoes are the giveaway. I moved back to the Midwest after 20 years away and I was stunned at how much the frumpy shoes women wear here ruin any type of outfit.

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