Mandeville, LA – “Clothes have always provided the most obvious indication of both dignity and definition. There was no question in anyone’s mind when Louis XIV walked into the room who was king. His yards of ermine and gold cloth made it easy. But today we see a man walking in midtown Manhattan wearing a pair of jeans, denim shirt and jacket, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots and have no idea what he may be. He may of course be a cowboy, but on 34th Street? All we are given to know is that he wants to be thought a cowboy. At least for today.
It is no accident that the casual ethic is embodied in this solitary figure of freedom. The sense of occasion he opposes was always communal—accessible at once to low and high. Occasions are shared public realities, rituals in which we recognize something other than private expression. C. S. Lewis thought about this idea of occasion in terms of solemnity. For Lewis, solemnity is a public joyous propriety in which we humbly give up our private selves to the ritual: “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility.” Wearing one’s Sunday best, as much as kneeling, was a visible sign of a humble heart.
If Lewis is right that a sense of occasion encourages humility, we should not be surprised to find that a society that no longer wants to dress up also gives more leeway to the strong than it does support to the weak. Fifty years on from the Casual Revolution, the dream of wearing shorts forever has faded. Frustrated by the demands of individual expression, some have begun to yearn again for a shared and public happiness. Behind their desire lies a realization that was once universal: A society hospitable to the down and out will not be afraid to