Monday, June 22, 2009

Dressing Like a Grown-Up (Especially if You Are One)

Right up front, don't think I'm advocating for the return of the bustle. Believe me, that is not my intention.

But take a moment and gaze at the drawing of these lovely Victorian ladies. What can you tell about them from what they are wearing?

First of all, you can see that these are adult women, not children or younger adolescents. You know that because, while little girls of the era wore clothes that were similar to what women wore, they definitely weren't miniatures of mature outfits (nor did women wear larger versions of clothing intended for teens and younger).

You can also tell that they're going somewhere special -- which is to say, out of the house.

In ye olden days, adults heading into public put a bit of effort into their clothes if at all possible.

Even the poorest women would trot out a ribbon or a bit of lace to show that they knew that they weren't at home scrubbing the kitchen floor but indeed in the world among their fellow citizens.

Men would put on a coat, perhaps a hat, and shine their shoes.

Looking just at how a person was dressed, you could make a reasonable guess about their age and whether they were going to church or a shop, or merely stepping out the back door to feed the chickens.

It was a question of respect, not just self-respect but respect for others and for the situation, place and circumstance.

These sorts of distinctions are much more difficult today, when an average middle-class adult might wear the same T-shirt, shorts and sneakers to church, to the mall, to the doctor's office, to the local park or to clean out the garage (or, in the case of some very indulgent employers, to work).

We all want to be comfortable. I'm sure these ladies loved comfort as well. No doubt, given the opportunity, a goodly number of them would have tossed out the crinolines, corsets and bonnets in favor of a tank top, cut-offs and flip-flops.

But I can't help but feel that more is lost in that than just a few yards of excess fabric.

I went to tea Sunday with some female friends, and we all wore skirts. Had we been outdoors, we might have donned hats as well. In the past, I've been to tea outings where the full kit was deployed, from cute shoes to a fancy chapeau and everything in between.

Gosh, it's nice to do that. I remember how special we felt, how we all appreciated each other's efforts to dress up the occasion. We weren't at a ball game or making a trip to the dump, and anyone looking at us would have been left in no doubt of that.

Like many people, I've gotten a little lax. I might throw on athletic wear and sneakers for church if I plan to go for a walk afterward, or be tempted to go to the store in my baggy pants and T-shirt just because it seems silly to dress up a bit just to get a quart of milk at Trader Joe's (OK, not that I ever leave Trader Joe's with just a quart of milk, but you get the point).

I actually saw a woman arrive at my local TJ's not more than a couple of months ago, decked out in an elderly T-shirt, leopard-print pajama pants and Ugg boots. I kid you not. And she was well over 18, and it was mid-afternoon.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't look a whole lot better (but at least I didn't have pajama pants on. Not quite, anyway).

A couple of days ago, after hearing about fortysomething Tony Hawk skateboarding through the halls of the White House -- the people's house -- and Twittering about eating Frosted Flakes there, I decided enough was enough.

At least he was wearing a suit (with sneakers), but even so, I fear we've lost any sense of what's appropriate, whether it's about what to wear or where to do things.

If a 41-year-old man doesn't respect the White House enough to act like an adult in it, then I'm not sure there's any place he wouldn't think catching a quick skateboard ride isn't perfectly appropriate.

Why not the National Cathedral? Great big shiny floor there. How about the Lincoln Memorial? Just grab the old guy's hand and whip yourself around. Bet you could could do a nice McTwist on the handicap ramps at the Smithsonian.

And since adults set the tone for kids, adults who refuse to stop dressing or acting like kids aren't doing the younger generation any favors.

It's still a tough, dangerous, competitive world out there, and the only way overgrown adolescents survive in it is because other people have decided to to put away childish things and become grown-ups.

If a 20-year-old soldier can throw on a uniform and pounds of gear every day to defend my freedom, the least I can do, safe and secure at home, is try every day to not let down my end of the adult bargain.

Also, looking to the future, with the job market shrinking and competition becoming more intense in a world where many workers are essentially independent contractors, the price of perpetual casual Friday could be high indeed.

So this Sunday, no sneakers in church. There might even a be a skirt. Heavens, who knows where this will lead...

Click here for "RedEye" host Greg Gutfeld's impassioned response to Hawk's most excellent White House adventure...

Here for the New York Times article about a book called "The Death of the Grown-Up"...

for's guide to dressing business casual...

Here for Virginia Tech's career-wear advice for its grads...

Here for a guide on professional dress for women...

Here for the same on the male side...

And here for those who might actually want to dress Victorian and go to tea, with advice from the always appropriately dressed friend who provided the illustration above.


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