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How the Bay Area Came to be a Hub for Casual Style

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Levi's has played a big part in casual fashion across the world, and it's based in San Francisco.  (Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Nordstrom)


n a recent visit to San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, KQED listener Michelle Morby didn’t like what she saw. In the middle of the champagne-sipping, pre-performance throng, she spotted someone wearing jeans and white sneakers.

“That to me is completely offensive,” Morby said.

Morby is someone who likes to dress up when she goes out.

“If I got a ticket to the opera tonight, I would pull out a silk jumpsuit. I would wear it with the tallest platform sandals that I have. And I would do my makeup, and I would wear all my jewelry,” she said.

Like beauty, fashion is very much in the eye of the beholder.

So the fashion faux pas prompted Morby to ask Bay Curious the question, “Why has the Bay Area become the Casual Capital of the World?”

“Sneakers and jeans at the opera. Yoga pants all day long. Hoodies and puffy vests. The list goes on,” she added. “Don’t say it’s the weather.”

If you’re thinking, “It’s not the weather. It’s Mark Zuckerberg with his hoodies and sneakers, and Steve Jobs’ monochrome T-shirts and jeans,” you should definitely read on.


It’s certainly true that Bay Area patrons of high-end arts events like the opera and ballet — as well as fancy restaurants and other places where you might traditionally dress up a bit — are increasingly dressing down.

Opera singer J’Nai Bridges, who recently portrayed “Carmen” at the San Francisco Opera, said she’s noticed Bay Area audiences tend to wear more casual clothes on a night out, compared to some other places, notably big cities in Europe and on the East Coast.

J'Nai Bridges as Carmen at San Francisco Opera.
J’Nai Bridges as “Carmen” at the San Francisco Opera. (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

“In New York, for instance, where I live, it’s the polar opposite,” said Bridges. “People wear gowns, tuxes and really funky couture things.”

Bridges is glad to see people coming to the opera, no matter what they’re wearing, but she personally wishes they’d put a little more effort into their appearance.

“Maybe I feel like that because, as a performer, we give so much of ourselves,” the opera singer said. “And it’s maybe a respect thing.”

But the Bay Area isn’t the only place where leisurewear rules. Any number of cities could vie for the title of casual capital.

“The casual capital of the world appears to be Salt Lake City, Utah,” Tan France, the fashion expert for the Netflix series “Queer Eye,” told KQED shortly after appearing on KQED Forum.

Tan France of 'Queer Eye' poses with Emmanuel Hapsis, host of KQED's 'The Cooler' podcast.
Tan France, left, of ‘Queer Eye’ poses with Emmanuel Hapsis, host of KQED’s ‘The Cooler’ podcast. (KQED)

France is British by birth, lives in Salt Lake City, and thinks the Bay Area is much more dressy than Utah.

“People wear heels and stuff, which is quite surprising,” France said. “You’ve got hills. Why is anyone in a heel?”

Other places around the U.S. that could equally be considered for the title might be Denver, Austin, Portland and Milwaukee.

But going with the premise that casual style is a key part of how people dress in the Bay Area today, a complex picture of how and why that came to be emerges.

The History of Casual in the Bay

Fashion historian Melissa Leventon shows off a pair of shoes from her historic shoe collection at her home in San Francisco.
Fashion historian Melissa Leventon shows off a pair of shoes from her historic shoe collection at her home in San Francisco. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

San Francisco-based fashion historian Melissa Leventon said the rise of casual wear in the Bay Area is part of the overall fashion story of California, having to do with economics, Hollywood, immigration patterns and the rise of modern design in the middle of the century in California.

According to Leventon, the San Francisco clothing industry was split in the late 1800s and well into the 1900s. On the one hand, San Francisco really was a dress-up town.

“San Francisco was actually a city that kind of prided itself on its elegance,” Leventon said.

People wore gloves and hats to run errands, and there were catwalk shows in San Francisco’s Union Square.

Leventon said San Francisco was home to some highly sought-after fashion labels. Like Lilli Ann, founded in the city in the 1930s.

“The company made beautifully tailored suits, cocktail dresses, evening dresses,” Leventon said. “They made the kind of elegant wear that well-to-do, well-dressed San Franciscans would wear.”

Even working-class San Franciscans who didn’t have lots of spare cash to throw around on fancy duds dressed up in a bid to project a sense of propriety and economic self-improvement.

Then there is the other side of San Francisco’s nascent clothing industry — the side focused on making hardy workwear for people like miners and railroad engineers.

That side centered around Levi’s.

“Levi’s is very important and certainly one thing that San Francisco has contributed to the general move to casualness, not only here but everywhere,” Leventon said.

Founded in San Francisco in 1853, Levi’s gradually became hugely influential after inventing the first denim jeans in the 1870s.

Levi’s was a game changer, especially starting in the 1930s, when the company began marketing its jeans not just as workwear, but also as leisurewear.

Teenagers became a target market after World War II, and Hollywood helped spread the word.

“Two movies helped popularize jeans,” Leventon said. “‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘The Wild One.’ ”

In these movies, James Dean and Marlon Brando smoldered in denim. Everyone wanted the look.

California also became home to some talented architects and designers who had fled Nazi Europe, like Rudi Gernreich, who emigrated from Austria in 1938.

Rudi Gernreich
Rudi Gernreich (Philadelphia City Paper)

“He did some really groundbreaking designs in the 1950s,” Leventon said. “He was a pioneer of unisex fashions. His clothes were streamlined, youthful and accessible to a wide range of consumers.”

The free-wheeling styles of designers like Gernreich went hand in hand with other global California exports, like Beat, Black Panther and hippie culture, and Hollywood surf movies. All of this stuff fed a movement in the media and advertising that projected a sense of the Golden State as a place of permissiveness, comfort and ease.

“The idea of California as a place where you could get back to nature,” Leventon said. “Nobody’s dressing up and going to the office. You’re putting on your bathing suit and maybe a pair of shorts and a tank top on top of that, and going out to the pool.”

That idea persists today. You can see a version of it in the yoga pants that many people wear about town. And of course, there’s the jeans, T-shirts, hoodies and sneakers popular with those working in the tech and entertainment industries — two stereotypical looks associated with The Bay Area.

So it’s not surprising that quite a few major leisure fashion brands beyond Levi’s have their roots here. The Gap, Esprit and Old Navy, (which is owned by Gap), not to mention newer ones like Everlane, Allbirds and Rothy’s, are based in the Bay Area.

All of these brands, especially the ones that have been around for a while, have fed into the idea of the Bay Area as being a home for casual style.

Our Diverse Fashion Sense

When it comes down to it, you really can’t put Bay Area style in a box.

“I think there’s a lot of diversity here if you open your eyes instead of your mouth,” said Tony Bravo, the San Francisco Chronicle’s fashion reporter.

He recently took to the streets of downtown San Francisco with KQED to scope out what locals and tourists were wearing. He was casually dressed in baggy jeans, a jacket covered in bright geometric shapes, and a resplendent pair of Converse high-tops festooned in gold and silver glitter.


Tony Bravo, Man about Town and the San Francisco Chronicles Fashion Reporter lounges in the backroom at The Cavalier in San Francisco.
Tony Bravo, man about town and the San Francisco Chronicle’s fashion reporter, lounges in the backroom at The Cavalier in San Francisco. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

“The thing about walking around San Francisco is, there’s always something for the eye,” Bravo said. “It may not be that Balenciaga ball gown or a perfect three-piece suit. But there might be a great color story. There might just be an impeccably cut piece of outerwear. A great shoe.”

All kinds of exotic details catch Bravo’s eye around Union Square, from a teen dressed in a black tulle ballet skirt, a pair of leggings and a pink sequined hoodie, to an older person in cropped balloon pants, a big sun hat and a bright yellow top. “I think she looks a little bit like a Van Gogh painting,” Bravo said.

There were, of course, lots of jeans and sneakers. But people clearly expressed themselves with their clothes, whether dressed casually or formally.

“We’re a great, progressive, sometimes libertine city, and I think that’s reflected in what we wear,” Bravo said. “It’s high, it’s low, it’s simple, it’s extravagant. It is so many things. It is perhaps too many things to categorize.”

Show us your style! Share a photo of your Bay Area style on Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #mybayareastyle. We’ll feature some of our favorites on KQED’s social media channels, and in the October Bay Curious newsletter. Whether you’re in jeans and a T-shirt or an avant-garde creation — we want to celebrate it all! For extra credit, tell us why you love what you’re wearing. Tag your photos by Sept. 20, 2019.


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