By Gamal Hennessy
I met a group of old school artists at Kitano for a jazz show last week. Between sets, we got to know each other. When they heard I wrote about nightlife culture, we started to discuss the differences between the past and present when it came to music, drinking and fashion. One of the ideas that stuck out to me from that conversation was the idea that 'no one gets dressed up to go out anymore'. While I agree with this concept on a certain level, I think the reality is more complicated than that.
The Different Eras of Nightlife Fashion
Before we can talk about how nightlife fashion has changed, we have to figure out what nightlife fashion is in the first place. But the idea itself is a moving target. There are dozens of different nightlife subcultures, and each one has its own his own look and feel. There are and have been major and minor trends, depending on the overall era we’re looking at. For example:
- The Jazz Age depicted in books like The Great Gatsby showed a high level of formal wear in the speakeasies and big band clubs. The trend of suits, dresses and high style associated with nightlife lasted from the rise of jazz in the 1920s to the Rat Pack era of the 1960s.
- The age of punk and disco emerged from the hippie and counterculture movements of the 1960’s to redefine nightlife fashion in venues like Studio 54 and CBGB. While the overall image went in completely different directions depending on the music, both served a similar function. It became less about dressing up and more about coming out with a look that marked you as a member of one specific group or another.
- In the age of hip hop and house, clothing moved from the flamboyant to the more functional. Because the forms of dancing that went along with the new forms of music were more acrobatic (in terms of the breakdancing and popping of hip hop) or required more endurance (in terms of the extended house remixes), the fashions changed to suit the new movement. Comfortable baggy clothing and sneakers replaced sequins and suits in clubs all over the city.
- What we have now is a trend towards universal casual. Striped shirts, T-shirts, jeans, mini-skirts and heels dominate the mainstream. Countercultures either borrow from the past or appear to reject everything, depending on their inner norms. In today’s nightlife, you are just as likely to see someone dressed in their pajamas as you are to see them in a suit.
The Influences on Nightlife Fashion
It might appear that I’m tying the evolution of nightlife fashion directly to musical trends. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story. Nightlife culture is intimately connected to mainstream culture and changes in one often have a direct influence on the other. Mainstream fashion changes nightlife in several ways:
- More casual mainstream society: The rise of a technology based society, marked by the internet boom of the late 1990s, had a direct impact on fashion as a whole. Casual Fridays and a general move away from a less formal workplace look trickled down into everyday living and nightlife specifically.
- More casual style icons: As hip hop music began to dominate popular culture, hip hop stars became fashion icons. While a few, like Andre 3000, elevated their fashion profile, many of them retained a preference for the clothing they wore before their stardom. T-shirts, jeans and sneakers became the uniform of rebellious affluence. The shirt and tie became, in many circles, became a symbol of subservience
- Counter intuitive expression of patron power: I believe that current nightlife fashion, especially as it applies to men, is an expression of defiant privilege. Their apparent lack of effort to dress when they go out is designed to send an unspoken message. They are trying to say ‘I am so influential and important that I can get into the club no matter how I look.’ and ‘I am so desirable and attractive that I can have social and sexual success in spite of my appearance.’ In many cases, the message is confirmed by the reaction they get when they go out.
- Competition reduces operator discretion: At a certain point, venues regularly turned away people who did not conform to their dress code. The most famous example of this is the throngs who never made it into Studio 54 because they didn’t have the right look. But modern economic realities trump stylistic preferences. With so much competition for patrons and revenue, most operators have no interest in turning away people just because they don’t fit their sartorial ideal. A poorly dressed man willing to spend $1000 on bottle service is preferable to 10 well-dressed men who spend $50 each on drinks.
Different Styles for Different Subcultures
As I said in the beginning, most of these concepts are broad generalizations. There are definitely some venues and scenes where a refined sense of style is rewarded and casual nonchalance is punished. There are other places where the fashion is not based on cost, but acceptance of subculture values whether they are hipster, Goth or some other clique. Depending on how you look at it, the evolution or demise of nightlife fashion is an expression of nightlife itself. How we dress when we go out is one of the major ways that we participate in nightlife culture. The more we put into it, the more we get out of it.