Until not too long ago, you could find channels on YouTube that showed videos of the day-to-day life in various Western cities in the middle of the 20th century. For some reason, the ones I knew are now gone, probably because of the extremism on display. Yet, whenever you come across such footage, you cannot help but think that we have gone downhill pretty fast. Whereas people used to dress properly for work, or just when they left their house, standards have slipped quite precipitously.
When I moved to Berlin in the early-to-mid 2000s, I was quite surprised that there were people around who wore sweatpants outside the home or the gym. Those people were neither alcoholics nor homeless. In fact, most of them seemed to be doing quite okay for themselves. It was just that they did not care much about their appearance. As I later learned, dressing like a total slob was just what some people thought was fashionable. Even in some clubs with a reasonably tough door policy you could see guys hanging out in sweatpants. For a brief while, there was a fad where people went to clubs in sweatpants, yet put expensive wrist watches or gold chains on display. This was at the height of hipster ironicism.
A mere two decades later, it seems that we managed to reach even further lows. Nowadays, you can sometimes see people at work, in white-collar professions, show up in sweatpants. The white collar has been gone for a very long time. The most egregious example in the year I encountered was meeting a female “head of human resources”, a black woman, who was walking around the office in grey Nike sweatpants. She was very well-mannered and she acted fully professionally, but when I met her in real life, I was a little bit surprised to see someone most likely pulling solid six figures dressing like a slob.
From what I gather, in high school and at university, sweat pants seem to be getting quite popular, too. I sometimes see groups of high school students of which some take heavy inspiration from rap videos. If you think that those must be the lowest-performing students, I have to disappoint you because I have met college students in their senior year who likewise thought that sweatpants were a totally fine piece of garment. Well, perhaps they pick one of their nicest pairs when they come in for a meeting.
In tech, I have heard people joke that there is no dress code. “The one rule is that you have to wear something”, they used to say. This meant that you could come to work in jeans and T-shirt whereas people in other departments frequently had to spend some of their money on buying separate work clothes. Even today, I would argue that it is the norm in finance and accounting to wear a suit or, at the very least, a shirt.
Looking at how people dress, and act, tells you a lot about societal health. Presumably, compared to places like San Francisco where open defecation is rampant, Western Europe is still in a comparably good spot, but the deterioration is obvious for all to see. It is an open question were all of this will lead to. We are probably close to rock bottom already, but if the recent past has taught me anything then it is that you should never underestimate the ability of our elites to make our lives even worse. What you perceive to be the nadir is merely a stop-gap. So, take a breather and appreciate the societal status quo because next year it could be a lot worse, once again, and it most probably will.