Why was everyone in the past so well-dressed?

Street scenes from NYC in 1911

Notice how well-dressed everyone is. No yoga pants, no leggings, no pajamas, no basketball shorts… everyone is dressed in a manner that we would consider ‘formal.’ All the men are dressed in suits, all the women are dressed in long dresses down to their ankles. People today dress extremely… uh… “casually” in comparison.

So exactly why did everyone back then dress so well?

First, that’s a great video, thanks

Second, to answer your question - that was just what people did back then. In parts of the world today, it’s what people still do.

Because everyone else did?

I know, that doesn’t really explain anything. My one WAG is that, in those days, people spent more time outside or in buildings that were less well-heated than ours, so they dressed in layers and wore suits and vests and hats and things like that to keep warm.

But they also dressed up in suits, ties & hats for baseball games in the summer. It was just a very different time.

They also had FAR fewer clothes than we have now, so what they had needed to work for multiple situations - work and weekend.

My Mum (18 at the end of the war) describes how everyone had a capsule wardrobe - she had one brown suit, two dresses, 3 blouses, a cardigan and that was about it.

Something of note in the film one rarely sees in Hollywood films- piles of horse hockey in the streets.

Before World War II, most of the population worked jobs that required hard physical labor. They spent most of the week wearing dungarees or khakis.

They liked dressing up for social occasions. The suit and tie was a welcome escape from the workday grind.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a large portion of the population moved up from the working class to the middle class. The suit and tie became a part of the weekday grind. That’s when dressing down became popular.

People were expected to dress that way. If you didn’t wear a suit, you would be looked upon as someone weird (unless you were a manual laborer, where you could take off your jacket while working).

There were people who didn’t wear them – kids, for instance (you can see some around 2:40). It was a big deal when they were old enough to get their first suit (or hand me down). Laborers didn’t wear them while working. And everyone wore hats (the film was shot in the summer, given the fact that some men are wearing straw boaters).

But people in the past thought differently than we did. Modern concerns for comfort would have perplexed them.

Yeah cheap imported clothing from China, India, and Pakistan did not exist yet and making clothes was a far more labor intensive process.

This must have been recorded after wearing an onion on your belt fell out of fashion.

people in 2100 watching a video from 2019

“Why is everyone wearing different clothes? Didn’t they all have a shiny metallic jumpsuit to wear?”

Standards of dress always evolve, or perhaps devolve. In 1911, at least in Britain, what we think of as a man’s suit was still called a “lounge suit” and was considered fairly casual – something you would wear during the day if you wanted more to be comfortable than to be well-dressed. It was certainly not OK during any evening event. I think this lasted until WWI, after which standards were more casual. Standards got more casual again after WWII. Possibly the great traumas and loss of life in those wars led people to be less fussy about such trivia as clothing.

Then in the 60’s was the great cultural revolution against war and it’s comrade, comformity, when in some circles the weirder the clothing you wore the better. (The irony was that if you didn’t conform to non-conformity, you were a social pariah.) There was some backlash in the Reagan years, but freedom, once tasted, can’t really be taken back, and it’s been a pretty steady trend towards the casual ever since.

Still, a line must be drawn at ath-leisurewear, don’t you think?

My guess is that it was, counter-intuitively,because laundry was such a chore. Most people wore outer clothes that could be brushed clean, and only laundered their underwear and shirts. And even with shirts, collars were detachable so you could wear the same shirt with a clean collar and cut down on the laundry. Monday was wash day, Tuesday was ironing. At least 20-25% of a woman’s time was spent doing laundry. The outer clothes protected the inner clothes from street soil.

With the advent of washing machines and electric irons people had more clothes and more time to wear them.


When you worked, you wore work clothes. When you did social things, you wore social clothes. That was about all most people had. My mother (who grew up on a farm during the Depression) literally dressed up to go shopping right up until she died and my father reused his old suits and shoes for yardwork. My father finally got a pair of jeans when he was in his 60’s, and they looked weird on him.

They weren’t dressed “well”. They were just dressed. They would no more have gone into town in pajamas or basketball shorts than you would go into town wearing nothing but a jockstrap. [ETA: yoga pants and leggings – in the modern sense of leggings – didn’t exist.]

I was born in 1951, and I clearly remember my mother and sisters and I putting on skirts, and my father putting on a jacket, if we were going to do the grocery shopping and eat at a diner. It was just what you did. (By the 1950’s the skirts were somewhat shorter.)

That started shifting in the mid 1960’s; though even in the 70’s nobody would have gone into town in pajamas.

(Neat video, by the way. Thanks.)

What would a more formal suit in that time would have looked like? I mean the type of suit that would be worn during the day, not evening wear.

Something likeKing George V or what William Howard Taft wore. Notice they wear vests and wing collars.

By the 1930s the style had gotten a little more informal. In the 1930s the Duke of Windsor (always a fashionably dressed gentleman) wears a “sack suit” with a conventional dress shirt and four-in-hand knotted tie. He’s still wearing a vest under that jacket, but he dropped that when he went to the more causal atmosphere of Bermuda.

Of course, the highest form of daytime dress was themorning coat. Even then there were gradiations: striped trousers, homburg vs. top hat, etc.

I suspect the general worldwide optimism was reflected by the attire. Times were good and people dressed to flaunt the new era. It was the start of a new century and events like WWI and The Great Depression hadn’t been experienced.

They weren’t dressed up. Clothing styles have changed. There were several different kinds of suits. Everyday wear types were different from more dressed up versions. The former have been long since replaced by what the OP calls causal wear while the later have survived, leading to your confusion.