Slovenly Moderns

In his book From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun uses the term “demotic” to describe our era of decline. Demotic means “of the people.” I was struck by his analysis of casual style, and this is an extended excerpt from the book:

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 “disadvantaged.” Such clothes 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 showing regard for the onlookers’ sensibilities. The reverse, the self purposely uncared for, expressed at once demotic anti-snobbery and demotic egotism.

The Unfitting appealed to the young but was not their monopoly. A sample of the casual style among adults had been to sport a business suit at the opera; this expanded into the open collar and no tie or jerseys and T-shirts almost anywhere, even in church. Airport crowds offered a typical fashion show. Where office workers were still required by their employer’s rules to wear business suits, “free Friday” relaxed them to usher in the weekend. In schools, extreme unfitness caused a reversal. Dress codes were enforced despite protests and strikes, so as to put an end to the distraction caused by the bizarre and sometimes indecent garb that the pupils had devised, unchecked by their parents. It turned out that discipline in classes and hallways improved, further evidence that the unfitting was an aspect of the unconditioned life.

Clothing was but the most obvious sign of the demotic style. Other choices expressed the same taste, for example, getting married underground in a subway station or around a pool, in swimming suits. And since unfitness meant freedom, other conventions should be defied, notably those classed as manners. The word was seldom used and the practice highly variable. Business firms and airlines thanked their customers effusively, but civility between persons was scant, especially in cities.

Deference toward women had decreased and was sometimes resented by feminists as condescending. Nor were the elderly entitled to more courtesy than other equals. The curious use of first names soon after acquaintance was a convention that showed the demotic paradox about convention itself.

The need to hurry, real or imagined, had created fast food, available at all hours, and it begot eating and drinking everywhere at any time. Shops, public offices, libraries, and museums had to post “No Eating or Drinking” signs to protect their premises from accidents and the disposal of refuse. The consumer society consumed, and up to a point one can sympathize with the impulse. In a heedless, uncivil world the driven needed to look after their wants as soon as they arose, to pay themselves back, as it were, by self-coddling. The indulgence was after all but the extension of the habit of EMANCIPATION. So many curbs and hindrances to desire had been removed-the legal and conventional by new laws and new conventions, the natural ones by techne with the aid of science-that the practice of permissiveness sprang in fact from the workings of welfare, coupled with the power of doing innumerable things by pushing a button.

Pleasure first and fast in a society that oppressed only unintentionally was bound to make instinctive rebels. At work, criticism or reproof was felt to be intolerable; there is a human right to make mistakes. Observers spoke of the decline of authority, but how could it survive in a company of equals? Distrust attached to anything that retained a shadow of authoritativeness-old people, old ideas, old conceptions of what a leader or a teacher was meant to do.

I realized that my youth came at the tail end of this process, when the last mores were crumbling. The idealization of the Sixties by the media colored my early reality. I sometimes think I will spend my whole life attempting to undo the foolishness I took for truth when I was young.

5 thoughts on “Slovenly Moderns”

  1. Dear Sir:

    An excellent post—I have often posted my admiration of Jacques Barzun on my own site and am always up for a little Barzolatry on WordPress.

    Sincerely yours,
    A Superfluous Man

  2. Barzun has some really great books. “From Dawn to Decadence” is an obvious choice and well worth reading, but others I’ve benefitted from are “Teacher in America” and “Simple and Direct.”

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