by Christopher Lee

One of the most common terms encountered when discussing menswear is “casual.” Yet, to say a man is dressed casually does little to describe what he is wearing. In fact, given the changing history of the term and its use in such diverse contexts, “casual” is what linguists call a “floating signifier,” a term with no precise meaning.

Once, at an academic conference, I was asked by a colleague if I ever dressed casually. At the time I was wearing a linen sport coat with pocket square, a knit tie, and cotton trousers. Under standards established for men’s style in the past, I was already dressed casually. In an episode of Downton Abbey, set in the 1910s, Matthew Crawley’s tailcoat is damaged, and he is forced to wear a tuxedo to dinner, making him woefully casual. In another episode, Tom Branson has only a three-piece suit to wear, which leads to even greater embarrassment at the table. (Unfortunately I didn’t have time to explain all of this to my colleague.)

Nowadays, while most people would recognize my linen sport coat as less dressy than a suit, even if I had taken off my tie, I still would not have been considered casual. In the popular imagination, the upper limit of casual might be the loathed “business casual,” though it could include anything from flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt to jeans and a polo. Thus, “casual” not only exists along a continuum of meanings but has become a downward moving target.  It is not so much a floating signifier as a sinking one. 

Adherents of formality might argue the inherent deficiency of casual clothing, but there is nothing wrong with dressing casually if it is a conscious choice. An indigo denim from Blue Blue Japan or a safari jacket from Kaptain Sunshine can be a thing of beauty because it is a declaration of individual style. The problem with “casual” is that its undefined nature often reflects a lack of intentionality. College students wear pajama pants to class because they don’t care. They’re uninterested. The choice is more subconscious than conscious.

Perhaps the embrace of undefined casual reflects the general disengagement of a millennial generation that feels like they don’t matter, that they can’t change the status quo. Maybe it’s a rebellion against the daily surfeit of choices we face today, from selecting the best seat at a concert to how we take our coffee; not caring about clothes is a small way to escape the burden of choice.

Yet, in the area of semiotics, clothing is a sign, just as words are, and it always presents meaning to others. This meaning deserves our attention and scrutiny, even as inexactitude of meaning appear at the highest levels of government. When the meaning of “elite,” “true” and “fake” are mutable and used for political advantage, the need for exactitude and thoughtfulness is urgent. This is precisely the moment to choose casual consciously, to define it as a thoughtful stylistic decision and be faithful to meaning, even in dress.