Plato, The American Dream, & Yoga Pants: Fashion, Form, and Function

Written By: Liam Watts

America. The land of the free, the home of the brave, and the abode of the yoga pant. Casual fashion has been at the heart of American culture for nearly a century; athletic wear, Levi’s, and Converse are as much a staple of our country as football and apple pie. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. Harken back to the days when men casually wore three-piece suits, and women more often than not wore dresses and skirts. At the turn of 20th century, formal fashion dominated the scene of what was considered normal everyday wear. Even into the 1960s, you were more likely to see a man casually wearing a tie than a pair of shorts. So, when did American fashion become as free as American people, and why? In order to begin to answer that question, one must go even further back, all the way to 400 B.C. and the city-states ancient Greece.

Plato is perhaps the most well known and most influential philosopher of the ancient world. Amazingly, most of his works, countless books, and lectures have survived intact for nearly 2,400 years. However, in order to understand what an ancient Greek thinker has to do with yoga pants and casual fashion, one only needs to understand what Plato meant when he discussed the difference between ‘being’ and ‘becoming.’ For many years before Plato, philosophers debated whether everything existed as unchanging in how it was (being), or whether, as Heraclitus said, “all things flow,” meaning everything is constantly changing (becoming). This was important because it is impossible to talk about something that is always changing. For example, if everything was always changing, when someone pointed to a person and said, “Hey, you, come here,” by the time this sentence was finished, the person being pointed at would no longer be the same “you” that was called. For Plato, he reasoned that some things are unchanging. “I am a person,” he would say. However, he also concluded that, as a person, he was always changing. Think of it like this: today one might like mushrooms, but tomorrow they may not. Therefore, he reasoned there must be both a world of being and a world of becoming. In a nutshell, there are ideas, concepts, or forms that are static, but individuals themselves are not bound to be forever unchanging. We are at once being and forever becoming.

America. The land of the free, the home of the brave, and the abode of the yoga pant.

But what does this have to do with yoga pants? For most of recorded history, people wore their ‘being’ on their sleeve, quite literally. The poor wore whatever ill-fitted, drab, poorly constructed garments they could find or create, and the rich wore tailored, colorful, and excessive garments. One could immediately assume someone’s social and economic class just by the clothing they wore. America flipped this entirely on its head. The great American Dream is the idea that anyone can come to America and find success with hard work and determination. A good job, a nice house, and a perfect family: the quintessential middle-class life. This was a revolutionary concept because, regardless of one’s class, race, or background, regardless of their being, anyone could come to America, work, and become. No longer was someone forced to be; they could become whatever they destined. The founding fathers were well-aware of Plato’s philosophy, and they believed all people should have this freedom to become.

Now, as the various civil rights movements swept across the country throughout the 20th century, more and more people began to chase this American Dream of the middle-class. These individuals did not all come from prosperous backgrounds. They were workers, they were immigrants, they were the descendants of slaves. Anyone with determination and hard work could pull themselves up. Soon the middle class of America no longer resembled the homogenous background of history; it was a pattern and patchwork of diversity like the very people that comprised it. Likewise, these new middle-class citizens wore jeans, t-shirts, shorts, and canvas shoes, differing from the formal suits and dresses of the past. This soon became the new ‘uniform’ that many other Americans aspired to. In the years since, fashion has continued to trend more and more casual as the middle class is repeatedly refreshed and fortified by those rising into it. Dresses became jeans, and jeans became yoga pants.

Fashion is constantly changing and evolving, and who can say for certain the cause? However, when it comes to America’s continual movement from formal to casual, a line can be drawn from the philosophies of Plato, through the American Dream, to the never-ending churring of the middle class. So, the next time you’re feeling thankful for the freedom and comfort of yoga pants, remember to be thankful for all the hard work of those who have come before.