A Crisis of Class (The Curse of Softpants)

May 5, 2020

I love looking at historic photos and seeing how our places have changed over time. Something that always stands out, is how nice everyone dressed in the past. No matter what job they had, or what activity they were up to, everyone paid particular attention to dress nice. You can see that everyone carried themselves a little differently. Imagine that- seeing people look their best all the time.  

I was recently listening to an interview with Ann Sussman, about her time living in Paris. She spoke about how much the experience of living there had changed her and changed how she thought about cities. She mentioned feeling like you had to get dressed up, just to walk down the street, because the surroundings were so eloquent. Imagine a city with surroundings so nice, you felt like you had to dress nicer just to enjoy them.  

Peaky Blinders has become one of my favorite shows in recent years, and what always strikes me, is how nice everyone is dressed, all the time. The Shelby brothers might be experiencing the world’s worst hangover or be on their way to commit some murders, yet they will be sure to have on a three-piece suit, a pocket watch, and a great hat- razorblades included. Imagine everyone feeling like public life is so important, that you had to look your best. 

In our house, we have nearly daily battles about clothing with our four children. The battle of school appropriate clothing vs athleisure, or as we call them in our house- soft pants. For example, here is a typical rant- “No Luke, you cannot wear soft pants on the first day of school.” Or, “Luke, stop crying about wearing hard pants (jeans).” And my favorite, “Finn, when I said change out of your soft pants I didn’t mean that you could wear soft shorts. Try again.” Maybe my wife coined this term, maybe it’s a Western Pennsylvania thing, but I like it and the term is here to stay. And so commences the constant battle in our house between the parents and the boys about soft pants. The boys are under the impression, that they need to be as comfortable as possible, at all times. That if at some point, their legs are ensconced in denim, they will be unable to enjoy the activities. So the idea of wearing hard pants is unthinkable. We explain, how you present yourself, is how people treat you, so it is important to dress nice. This argument is not worth having with them, since they clearly don’t care. Regardless, they are forced to wear hard pants to school and their suffering knows no bounds. While they don’t care, it matters to us as parents, that their attire matches the importance of the place they are going. School matters, so they will dress appropriately. Mostly.  

We are in the midst of a crisis of class. 

This might seem like a strange article for an organization focused on place, but I think there is plenty of reason to believe that our places and our attire have a close relationship. As the appearance of our places have deteriorated, so has our desire to dress up our own appearances. Think about it this way, most people would feel underdressed wearing soft pants to a historic city hall. Most would feel overdressed wearing a suit to The Dollar Tree. Without realizing it, our environment shapes our own appearance choices and most of those environments are getting worse over time.  

Today we have fewer nice restaurants, fewer beautiful civic buildings, fewer traditional, pedestrian oriented streets. We have more fast food, more disposable buildings and more hideous, auto-centric streets. There are, in fact, fewer places we can even go to get dressed up. Fewer places where it is even appropriate to dress up. Fewer places where we can even experience a sense of class. I know as a society, we have definitely embraced comfort, but we are also products of our environment, and as our surroundings have declined, so has our  desire to look nice. I see that as a fundamentally bad thing.  

There is a direct relationship between our appearance and how we feel about ourselves. When we get in good shape, we feel better about ourselves. When we dress up and look nice, we feel better about ourselves. It’s nice to put on a quality suit or a dress. It feels good, it’s fun, it’s a very grown-up thing to do. When everyone only ever wears soft pants, they are missing out an opportunity to feel better about themselves. When all of our surroundings are soft pants places, we are missing out on a chance to feel better about ourselves. We are missing out on a chance to feel good about our places.   

Places built with pride give us the same feeling as putting on a well-made suit or dress. We are surrounding ourselves with quality, hand crafted materials, and that feels good. It lifts our spirits and gives us a sense of dignity, a sense of pride. Those feelings are sorely missing from society and that is not without a cost. 

 It is cheap and easy to grab some soft pants at the Walmart and wear them all over town. It is more expensive to purchase quality clothing, but you can expect quality clothing to outlast its mass produced cheap counterparts. In the long run, you have nicer clothes and save money. Quality is always worth the investment, because quality materials can be maintained and repaired. It is cheaper to toss up a strip mall, but they are disposable and in the long run, they don’t make anyone feel good.  

Living in a traditional, well built neighborhood, is like putting on a nice suit or dress every day. It gives us a sense of dignity and a sense of pride. It makes us feel good about ourselves and helps build our self-esteem. Doing things the right way has so many benefits. When we surround ourselves with things made with pride, it rubs off on us. We are a reflection of those object and those objects are a reflection of us. While it is possible to feel good about yourself in soft pants and your Steelers t-shirt, it’s a hell of a lot easier to do in well made clothing. And while it is possible to feel good about a town full of disposable buildings, it’s a hell of a lot easier in a town built with pride. 

Sprawl buildings are the soft pants of the built environment. They are cheap, mass produced, not meant to last, and doesn’t make anyone feel any better. It is an investment in making our cities and lives worse. Yet, this is predominantly what we have built for 50 years, so that places built with pride are becoming too expensive for the average person because there are so few of them left. 

Putting on nice clothing makes me feel good, it improves my self-esteem and increases my productivity. I enjoy getting dressed up because of the way it makes me feel and how it effects how others treat me. On the converse, I am well aware of the snap judgments I make of people that take no care of their appearances. This is not me being a terrible person, this is me using contextual clues to help navigate my environment and everyone does this. 

When we put on nice clothing, people assume we care, they assume we have a sense of dignity and pride. They assume we are professional and capable. None of these things may be true, but that is how impressions work. 

When people drive through a town that does not seem to care about appearances, they will make all their judgements from their windshield. No amount of marketing can overcome what a pair of eyes can see in 5 minute drive through your city. What message is the appearance of your town sending to outsiders? Worse, what message is it sending to residents? What if your town has only invested in soft pants? What if the environment you have created for residents is cheap, disposable and ugly? What if it keeps people from feeling a sense of class, what if it keeps people from experiencing a sense of pride, what if it makes them feel worse about themselves?  What if the surroundings of your residents is making them feel terrible about their town? 

As individuals and as communities, we can all do better. Let’s invest in quality and craftsmanship. Let’s build our self-esteem and lift ourselves up. Let’s ask more of one another and more of ourselves. Imagine what we could achieve if we all just said no to soft pants.  

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