By: Joseph Coates

Clothes Are A Conundrum For The Futurist. They are nearly universally worn and a worldwide industry spends tons of money to present the new, must-have stuff to would-be customers.

The history and the anthropology of clothes are in good shape, but when one looks out a decade or more, the situation is worse than anyones guess, it is a matter of complete indifference. The movie and television industry, which have nearly unlimited money to put into making high-quality films, reflect the same lack of insight into the future. Consider the characters on Star Trek; they all dress in metalized long johns. Films of combat in the future are barely more than comic parodies of medieval knights in their metallic clothing speckled with fantastic gimcracks and push buttons of uncertain functions. Let us explore this intellectually arid landscape to look at what is shaping the future of clothing.

First of all, there is the question of fashion. Fashion and clothing are so intimately linked that we must consider them as twins joined at the hip. Fashion may move rapidly or slowly, but always in the context of culture, which moves at a far slower pace. Culture is an especially potent factor in clothing, and is in turn, influenced by climate, the annual cycle of weather change, and local raw materials. In the modem era, changes in clothing occurred with cultural transitions from the 18th to the 19th and from the 19th to the 20th centuries. For example, clothes associated with death and funerals were invariably black and worn for a very long time. In the 18th century, a middle-class widows weeds were worn for 21 months. Then, during the 19th century and the early 20th century, there were black armbands for men that announced bereavement.

Those cultural elements marking the end of a life have, in the United States, almost disappeared except that one wears conservative clothes and most, if not quite all, people dress in their Sunday best for a funeral. As part of culture there is the inevitability of social change.

Womens entry into the workforce on a large scale has happened twice in the lifetime of many readers. The first in WWII when all of the Rosie the Riveters adopted mens industrial coveralls and overalls and made only one significant concession to femininity, a colored bandana to keep their long hair out of harms way. That did not survive the war. The need to celebrate victory and to enjoy the emerging prosperity of the country made womens clothes more lavish and generous in fabric, in ways not seen for 30 years. The more drastic change in womens dress as well as in young mens began in the 1960s when middle-class women entered the work force in massive numbers.

Now, they are in the workforce almost in parity of numbers with men. The new jobs for women were not primarily blue-collar but white-collar and office work, which commits them to more formal clothes. Clothes distinguish a woman who has a white-collar job from those who do not and further mark the upwardly mobile in their dress for success. On the other hand, social changes going on rather dramatically in the last three decades made even more common dressing down, rather than dressing up, especially outside work.

Steadily, however, leisure and recreational garb are making it onto the business scene. Today, Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week show the few surviving new tycoons of Silicon Valley in extremely relaxed garb. Changing attitudes toward a more congenial, stress-free workplace has given us dress-down Friday. That has not escaped corporate regimentation.

All clothiers at noticeable cost provide the new regimented garments suitable for dress-down Friday, making it barely a step ahead toward loosening up the workplace.

The trend toward more comfort and informality will move men to wear short pants during the summer season and at other times, in white-collar work. The trend toward working at home, particularly for those people who spend some time in a conventional office and some time at home, will push more informality and comfort at both places.

Pants for woman have now become acceptable in all work contexts.

More significant is the radical reduction of age differences in choice of clothes. Most old people, i.e., over 50, function as if they were 10 years younger than they are chronologically. Their better health also contributes to their dressing in the clothes of a younger crowd. Older women are dressing in stylish pants like their younger sisters, and in many regards like their adult children. At the other age extreme, small children are now dressing much like adults, except for both girls and boys on formal occasions when they tend to dress as everyone did in an earlier generation.