Casual Is Overrated
Finally, we were invited to an event! We received a real invitation, in the mail. An actual paper thing in an envelope, with a postage stamp. How novel, right? I was so excited picturing us kissing the kids goodnight, waving to the sitter, and striding out the door for a night of conversation and cocktails among well-heeled adults.
Oh, my vintage raspberry cocktail dress would be perfect. At last, a chance to wear it! Add black pumps, a little cashmere sweater, low ponytail, minimal jewelry. My husband would wear a suit and tie, or maybe a sports coat. Hurray! Grown-ups doing grown-up things. It's about time.
I can barely express the depth of disappointment I felt when my husband informed me of the suggested dress code: CASUAL. Again!
It had been months since I last "got dressed." No, I hadn't been naked in the interim. But with every aspect of daily life, from the boardroom to the dining room, requiring only dark jeans and a blouse, there'd been no occasion to put on a dress, hose (bare legs with pumps? not me, sister), and a "full face" of make-up (as opposed to tinted moisturizer and lipstick).
Way back in spring there'd been a religious event. The ceremony and luncheon were held at the family's house of worship on a weekend morning. Not a formal affair. But you'd imagine wanting to show up in something beyond your "good" Crocs. Or maybe not. In my slim but modest pale-blue 60s dress, nude-toned heels, and cream handbag, I was the most dressed up woman in the venue. You can bet mine was the lone strand of pearls. My outfit (vintage or not) was entirely appropriate for the occasion. So why was I the only one dressed this way?
Perhaps for the same reason you so often see soccer shin guards in church and sweatshirts on airplanes? I'd argue it's a combination of factors. Self-absorption plays a part ("Why should I have to dress up for this?"). Pure laziness is probably on the list. But the single biggest factor may be our overwhelming desire for unmitigated, uninterrupted comfort. It's reflected in every aspect of our society. From our ubiquitous comfort food (just try finding a venue without snacks for sale), to our over-sized cars and overstuffed furniture, to our need to (with lightning speed) eradicate the slightest ache or pain.
My mother told me more than once, "If you're too comfortable, you don't look good." Sounds crazy, but oh, it's true. "If your waistband is loose enough to be comfortable, you don't look polished," she'd say. "It's hard to breathe," I'd complain. "You don't need to breathe so much. It won't kill you." And she was right. I still wear the waistband on my dressier clothes just a hint too small. Reminds me to hold in my stomach. Can't slouch. And certainly can't overeat without serious discomfort (cheapest diet plan going). No, I'm not a fan of pain. I'm no masochist. But sometimes, propriety trumps uninterrupted comfort.
And if not propriety, how about showing respect? How about letting your hosts know you are grateful enough to have been included that you made an effort (and will withstand whatever slight discomfort is involved) to dress up for their special occasion? Showing up in the same outfit you'd wear to the grocery store is a slap in the face to the people who invited you. It doesn't say, "I care so much and feel so close to you, I can just be myself." It says, "I care so little, I can't be bothered to do any better. Take it or leave it."
Most women I know spend considerable time sitting in salons, happily having hair coiffed and nails painted. For them, it's an absolute necessity and without it they feel slovenly. Alas, for me, the salon is no spa. It's more a rehab center: No place you want to end up, but sometimes, very necessary.
But these same women, who wouldn't dream of missing a hair or nail appointment, take their impeccable grooming no further. Whether they are trendy, traditional, or in between, these modern women all seem to agree: Casual is the way to go. They don't just dislike dressing up. They dread it. They'd do most anything to avoid it. They find ways to get out of events that require it.
So what's this aversion to putting on real clothes? Again, I think at least in large part, it's about the comfort. Somehow we've all come to believe we are entitled to feel completely relaxed all the time. Why wait all day long for that sigh of relief when you kick off your heels and slip on your fuzzy slippers? Just cut to the chase and wear your Uggs to work. And don't forget your Pajama Jeans.
Believe me, I know tired. Bone tired. It's not hard to understand why most of us don't want to dress up for a trip to the supermarket or to sit in the carpool line. And travel today is no longer the luxury experience it once was. An airplane seat is a step away from a medieval torture device. No need to add stilettos to the equation. Really, I get it.
But how about a dinner party? Or a wedding? Or a funeral? For some reason, even those occasions don't make the cut anymore. And I find myself being stared at there as if I, not the women in flip-flops, were woefully inappropriate. Sheesh.
It's a sad state of affairs when my husband wants to take me out for our anniversary, but we can't find a single restaurant, in a city of 5 million people, that requires a jacket and tie. Not one "formal dining establishment" left. One by one, they've gone casual or gone away. The last time my husband wore a jacket and tie to a restaurant, the only other man similarly dressed was the waiter. Dinner for two cost more than $150 (clearly, this wasn't Golden Corral), but no one felt the need to dress the part.
A close friend and confidant, upon hearing my argument for sloth, self-interest, and an obsession with comfort as the root of our sartorial rut, offered his own theory. One that makes sense, and is, frankly, a lot more interesting than mine. It all started with the slow death of formality, he said, and the birth of the hippie movement in the mid-60s. Anything smacking of "the establishment" became undesirable. It was the beginning of "anti-elitism" (shorthand for "we frown upon anything that makes us feel poor and stupid, even if that stance increases our odds of remaining that way").
Gone were waist cinchers, wiggle dresses, gloves and cocktail hats (which, ironically, were de rigueur for all echelons of society, not only the rich and well-educated). In came bell bottoms and burning bras. Sure, a lot was gained in those years. But did we have to lose the shirtwaist and the pencil skirt in the bargain?
In the 80s, my friend continued, the pendulum swung back just a bit to the relatively more formal (than boho, anyway) preppie look epitomized by Ralph Lauren's image of the perfect American life -- clean cut, impeccably (albeit casually) dressed. Call it "rich and rumpled."
But prosperity was short-lived. Bubbles burst, and we have now settled into what my friend calls "lowest common denominator fashion" -- think J. Crew and the GAP. Nice enough, but never more than "business casual." Why? Because anti-elitism has become a nationwide movement. These days, dressing up is equated with snobbery. It's frowned upon because it is considered a political statement. It is, my friend said, considered "elitist."
Rather than ask the obvious and politically charged question of why we, as a nation, prefer ignorance, poverty, and poor manners over intelligence, affluence, and social graces (in our leaders or ourselves), I will point out that despite our obsession with flip-flops, Mad Men has a very large audience. So what? Well, that tells me there's still hope. Hope that one day, I'll get to wear that raspberry cocktail dress at a cocktail party and no one in jeans and a blouse will give me the stink eye.
I'd argue that most of us who tune in to watch the goings on at Sterling-Cooper are interested in the plot, sure. But what we're really there for are the clothes. Oh, how we long to dress like Betty or Joan! How we wish our men wore slim suits and ties, and even hats, like Don and Roger.
I'm thinking we should get together.
Somebody, please invite us to something formal. Black tie, white tie. Any tie at all. Give me the chance to be really uncomfortable for a few hours -- happily unable to bend over or eat too much. Give me the chance to dress up. I will love every minute of it. And I'll bring a really nice hostess gift. I'm thinking maybe something vintage ...