KEEP SUMMER WARDROBES RESPECTABLE
By Judith Martin
Sunday, June 1, 2003
Respectable people did not used to appear any the less respectable as a concession to summer heat. They had summer wardrobes made of lighter materials, but these featured the same items as their winter counterparts, including ties and jackets, long skirts and stockings.
Of course, that was back before air conditioning. Now we have desperate and indignant pleas that human survival would be at stake if anyone had to stagger from air-conditioned transportation to air-conditioned buildings wearing more than tank tops, shorts and sandals.
Miss Manners does not mention this out of any yearning for the fortitude of yore. Those people must have been nuts.
But she finds the relationship between the progression of technology and the progression of style to be curious. As the methods of producing clothing went from tedious handwork to mechanized mass-production, tailcoats and embroidered, elaborately draped dresses were abandoned for jeans and basic-black shifts. In architecture, for that matter, increasingly powerful equipment and more flexible materials marked the change from an immense variety of fanciful buildings to the ubiquitous unadorned box.
Ah, well. Miss Manners doesn't pretend that hers is the prevailing taste. If it were, the bustle would be back, and ladies could use their stair machines to practice walking with a train.
All she asks is that some effort be made to conform to the standards of our own times, which still distinguish between dressed and undressed. There must be a summer compromise between running around in practically nothing in order to stay cool and looking dignified while passing out.
But attempts to loosen easily definable dress codes always bring more problems than they solve. No sooner are concessions made than they are abused. When word goes out that ties and jackets are no longer required, out come the T-shirts and jeans. If those are permitted, out come the tank tops and shorts.
Part of this stems from confusion. Most people have a pretty good idea what business dress is, but -- as is obvious at any informal social event -- everyone has a different definition of genuine casual, and, even after all these years, no one has ever found out what "business casual" means.
The rest is bolstered by argument, mostly about creativity and comfort. Miss Manners doesn't mind the visual part of the summer slops nearly as much as having to listen to versions of "Nobody can tell me what to wear because I'm grown up now and I won't wear any of those grown-up clothes that would make me look old."
She would have thought that at least she would be spared the summer buzz of complaints about how tourists and co-workers dress, but strangely, even the self-proclaimed rebels care about such things. As it is difficult to proclaim independence for oneself but not others, they put it in different terms: Those half-dressed people are fat, sweaty, provocative, showing off, smelly, hairy, threatening-looking and so on.
Yes, those are some of the things that benefit from a few bits of light cloth. Unless these people are on the beach, where it is inoffensive because that is the dress code.