In the Telegraph today, Charles Moore asks why it is that, at a time when decent clothes are more affordable for more people, general standards of dress have never been so dire.
It's quite brave of him, because taking on a subject like this means one runs the risk of being dismissed as a a disapproving blimp. But he's right; it's no coincidence that so much of the nostalgia we might indulge in relates to the fashions of even the very recent past. I wrote about this in Look at Me: Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain:
"Much of it comes down to a form of selfishness. The belief that you should ‘express yourself’ through what you wear is a relatively new one, very much part and parcel of the values of the Me Generation identified by Tom Wolfe in the Seventies and the counter-culture of the decade which came before it. Expressing your own individual sense of style, or dressing in what makes you happiest and most comfortable regardless of the context, is the unchallengeable criterion now. You can cover yourself with tattoos, pierce your eyebrows and belly buttons and wear t-shirts with lame slogans ( Do I Look Like I’m Interested? ) which are designed to simultaneously alienate others while drawing attention to aspects of your character you have decided are interesting.
Dressing with some degree of smartness, or at least in what might be appropriate for the occasion, was all about. The instinct to not turn up to a funeral in jeans, or a wedding in shorts and trainers, came not necessarily from an innate preference for suits or ties, or a slavish desire to uphold convention, but from a sense of consideration and respect for others. Unshined shoes, the Vogue editor Diana Vreeland famously said, are the end of civilisation; it followed that how you appeared to those around you said as much about what you thought of them as you did of yourself. If you have been encouraged not to care what others think, or, as is increasingly the case, are not even aware of those around you, then it is hard to see why you should give a damn. Such a lack of consideration or effort, with its implicit selfishness, has a demoralising, energy-sapping effect on public life.
Dressing well went along with a strong sense of collective identity, something which could be found especially amongst the traditional working class. This has been misunderstood by generations of middle class interferers who rather arrogantly assumed that they were imposing their own bourgeois standards on the workers, who should be freed from such restrictions. I remember as a first generation college boy from a working class family in the late seventies being confronted with Trotskyite public school boys who, in their desperate attempts to appear down with us proles, took to swearing a lot at Union meetings, not shaving and dressing as slobbily as possible. They were completely misguided if they thought this was what being working class meant of course, as well as being outrageously insulting.
But somehow they won the day; over the past thirty years, what is left of the working class has indeed transformed itself into something it never was, and is now fully living up to the middle class view of it. The result has been an army of what we might call kidults, who can be seen in any high street or shopping mall: chubby middle-aged men in long shorts, baggy slogan-covered tops and trainers, waddling like huge babies, clasping bottles of water topped with those special drinking teets."