Why Don't We Dress Up Anymore?

(photo: Shutterstock image)

Last week Monsignor Charles Pope wrote a thought-provoking post lamenting our lax modern attitudes regarding the way we comport ourselves in public, especially when it comes to attire. It was occasioned by an ad for Skinny Girl liquor (which you can watch at the bottom of Msgr. Pope's post) that juxtaposes a caricature of a woman from the 1950s to modern women. The '50s woman wears a tailored dress, white gloves, high heels -- and of course the stereotype wouldn't be complete without a gaudy string of pearls. While this woman sits stiffly and rattles off rules about how a real lady behaves, the ad flashes to images of modern women having fun while breaking all of these rules (and drinking Skinny Girl beverages, naturally).

There's a lot one could say about this ad, starting with the crushing irony of the fact that its message dismisses the behavioral laws of generations past, while loudly proclaiming the unspoken laws of our own times ("A real woman watches her calories so that she can be 'skinny'!" one hears in the undertones of the entire marketing campaign). But I think that Msgr. Pope has identified the most telling aspect of the ad when he writes:

As the commercial rolls on, I think we see that we have lost a lot. The picture flashes away from the elegantly dressed woman, careful for modesty and dignity (though excessively portrayed), to the modern scene where we are suppose to rejoice and approve at how far women have come.

And what do we see? Half drunk women, with painted nails and flip flops, liquor bottles in abundance, and the indelicate and boorish behavior of those who have been drinking too much. Further there are numerous displays of immodest dress, immodest posture and unbecoming behaviors. In effect, if you ask me, it is a celebration of all in our culture that is boorish, immodest, indelicate, and excessively informal.

This subject is a minefield, but I'm glad that Msgr. Pope brought it up, because I think there are some issues worth thinking about here.

My 98-year-old grandfather often remarks upon how much more formally people used to dress. When he would talk about women pulling out their favorite attire to wear to church, or a man taking the time to press his shirt before going into town, I felt like there was something good there. Of course, this era had its own problems; like Msgr. Pope, who went out of his way to make it clear that he doesn't think everything was perfect in the past, it wasn't that I thought my grandfather's generation had everything figured out in all areas of life. Rather, it was just a vague sense that there was something positive behind the old customs regarding how people dressed and comported themselves in public, even though I couldn't put my finger on what it was.

It finally clicked one day when I was sitting on an airplane, watching everyone board, and remembered a picture I'd seen of my grandparents getting ready to board a flight in the 1940s. I and the other passengers were dressed about five degrees more casually than my grandparents and the other folks around them in that old black-and-white photo. As I thought through what motivated the two different cultures, it occurred to me: Air travel used to be a privilege. People dressed up for it out of a sense of respect and gratitude, because not everyone got to do something like that. Today, most people take flights at least occasionally. It's not a big deal anymore. We don't feel particularly grateful to be able to do it. And thus, we don't dress up.

I began to notice this in other areas too: Going out to a restaurant, or to a grocery store -- perhaps even to church -- are all activities that used to be valued more than they are today. The economy was different, and far fewer people could afford to go out to eat than can today. Many women who went grocery shopping remembered the days before the corner grocery store existed, back when people had to milk cows and churn butter and slaughter chickens in order to get the goods that were now wonderfully easy to pick up in a store. And some of it may even have be due to more awareness of the fleetingness of life: Though lukewarm attitudes about God have existed in all times and places, people certainly appreciated church more before modern medicine and conveniences made us feel like we could create our own heavens here on earth.

I don't think that the social principle that you should dress up for what's important to you has changed since the 1950s; I think there's simply not that much that's important to us anymore. I wore faded jeans and a t-shirt the last time I went out to dinner, because it wasn't a big deal to me. As much as I hate to admit it, I wasn't that grateful to be able to be served dinner in a restaurant; it felt more like a right than an honor. However, if I got an invitation from Queen Elizabeth to join her at Buckingham Palace for tea tomorrow, you can bet that that outfit would be the furthest thing from my mind. We still dress up when we feel that an activity is an honor or a privilege.

Hopefully it goes without saying that I'm not suggesting that those of us who dress casually most of the time are never grateful for anything. However, on a widespread cultural level, I do think that a blasé attitude toward our daily activities is at the root of our modern blasé attitudes about dress and manners. And so when Msgr. Pope asks at the end of his post, "Have we lost something?" I would say yes; and I would suggest that if we hope to reclaim what has been lost, we must first reclaim a sense of gratitude.