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Shallow Waters

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I’m with Cheryl–I think Lymaree is vastly underestimated the extent to which we are judged by our appearances, even in California.  I wouldn’t expect to have any trouble in a store–well, not in the vast majority of stores–because the only issue there is ability to pay, and they don’t really care about anything else.

In virtually every other arena, however, even in areas of the country where everybody is “casual,” people do judge each other by what they wear, how they talk, how they hold themselves, and a dozen other “superficial” criteria.

And if the principle person involved in my  Worst Week-end had been smarter–well, okay, if she’d been smarter, this wouldn’t have started at all.  But if she’d been more observant and more prone to paying attention rather than asserting  her Unending Unconditional Rightness, she’d have known her assessment of me was wrong, if only because she’d have picked up on the accent.  I’ve got a Connecticut Gold Coast accent that, in spite of years of attempting to mitigate it,  you could still cut like a knife.

Then there’s “casual”–there’s casual, and then there’s casual.  I know all about rich people who dress down.  This is New England.  We invented that particular affectation.  But there are ways of dressing down and other ways, and I can certainly spot which is which. 

And, for what it’s worth, of all the places I’ve been, in this country and out, the most status-conscious, clothes-reading place I’ve ever been has been Los Angeles.  

But it’s not if we judge each other on these superficial criteria that I’ve been thinking about, but to what extent it makes sense to accommodate that.  Trollope, and Jane Austen, wouldn’t have found the clothes we wear trivial at all.  They’d have taken them as a statement of not only who we actually are, but of our allegiance to the society in which we live. 

Trollope would have had no patience with a rich person who dressed down, because he would not have seen this as humility, but as a declaration that such a person was rejecting not only fashion, but the moral foundations of the world around him. 

The old joke about the British explorer who dressed for dinner in the bush was not a joke.  Such a man was upholding the superiority of civilization over the lack of it, of the human being as civilized over the human being as…well, not.  What looks to be superficial at first glance is anything but on further inquiry.

I am very ambivalent about all of this.  On the one hand, there is a lot about post-World War II modernity that I like.  There is, for instance, the fact that in any other era, even in the Fifties of my childhood, I would, as a grown woman, have been expected to wear stockings (or, worse, pantyhose) every day, even at home. And I tend to think of pantyhose as something like hell on earth.

I don’t have much patience with clothes.  I mostly just dont’ want to think about them.  A world in which nobody else seems to be thinking about them suits me, especially when it means that I can dress for comfort rather than for form most of the time.

But milder versions of “dressing up” have their uses, too.  There ‘s a certain self-discipline involved in going about your business in a skirt and blouse and decent shoes rather than in sweats and sneakers, and something in the way of declaring a definition of “being human” that resists the wallowing in animality that’s become so prevalent lately.  The Brit in the jungle eating dinner in white tie and tails was declaring not only who he was, but who he wasn’t.

And there’s a side issue, too.  As standard uniform dress has disintegrated into wear-anything-you-want, more and more people don’t wear clothes quite so much as they wear costumes–especially women.

It’s startling how many people I see who are made up to represent something.  In my childhood, this was restricted to Beatniks, who were trying to Make A Statement.  You had Regular People–Villager skirt and sweater set, little blouse, stockings, one and a half inch heel pumps.  Then you had Beatniks–smocky dress, black tights, ballet flats. 

We all thought the Beatniks were trying too hard, and that’s something else about the way people do and do not dress today.  The ones who take care with it often seems as if they’re working overtime to be Individual, and the individuality usually seems fake. 

I’m going around and around with this, and I apologize.  Maybe what I’m trying to say is this:

a) maybe it requires a certain conformity in superficial aspects to allow for true individuality to flourish.  I remember reading an essay on the poet Stevie Smith that said she had that bedrock confictiono of her own complete ordinariness that all real eccentrics have, and that is, in fact, what my experience has been.

The men and women I see wearing quirky little costumes–peasant blouses and three tons of turquoise and silver jewelry; pegged jeans, motorcycle jackets and ponytails to the ass off the back of a mostly bald head–do not look individual to me so much as desperately self conscious, and a little pathetic.

And then there’s this:

b) maybe a certain small degree of formality is required to remind us, on a minute to minute basis, that being human is not just something we are, but something we have to live up to. 

Okay.  That’s another post for another time.

Written by janeh

September 28th, 2009 at 7:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Shallow Waters'

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  1. I do sometimes wonder if I’m allowing my personal preferences for cotton slacks and t-shirts to send a (mostly unintended) message of disdain for the people around me. For example, if I attend a wake in my casual work clothes, are the next of kin going to consider that I’m disrespectful? Will their response be affected by whether I turn up as part of a delegation from the workplace, all dressed casually, or on my own in the evening, when I might be expected to have had time to change?

    I’ve never had much patience with those who wish to merely, what’s the phrase, epater la bourgeoisie, rather than to make some kind of argument for or against something. I know that dressing against convention can be taken that way (as well as an indication of poverty, lack of intelligence or social graces, etc etc). And I really hate the classic feminine clothing – not skirts or dresses as such, I like them just fine, particularly in the summer and particularly if made of cotton and loose and flowing. What I hate are pantyhose or stockings (particularly in the winter), high heeled shoes or boots at any time of year, and garments that are tight, constricting or ones you can’t sit down in without putting on a show. Oh, I’m not much of a fan of over-priced garments you can’t even wash and which are so badly sewn they don’t last long at all; certainly not as long as a pair of my Wal-Mart cotton slacks. But I have to admit that some people do read into unconventional dress the message that the wearer either doesn’t understand or is unable to follow social mores – or else wants to epater everyone in sight. Putting the effort into dressing well does show, well, that you want to support a certain vision others around you hold. I even buy and wear a pair of pantyhose when I do a job interview. I’ve always been glad I don’t live in an area in which heavy makeup is the norm, though.


    28 Sep 09 at 8:08 am

  2. I think that this is a more serious (or at least more significant) issue than it might seem. Certainly we older folk would tend to think so more than would our children, but I think even they get the message eventually. I think your remark about the British gentleman dressing for dinner in the bush says it all, really. We either maintain a high standard or we don’t, and when we let such seemingly unimportant things slide, all sorts of very important things tend to get carried away too.

    Robert the Sergeant will understand what I’m getting at here. Once upon a time, and not very long ago, in your Air Force and ours, there was a very clear standard of dress required and enforced fairly rigidly. At work, you wore working dress which varied from overalls for guys doing manual work, eg maintaining aircraft or working in workshops, through flight clothing for aircrew engaged in flying activities, to some degree or other of regular military dress uniform for those working in offices. Senior officers, who would probably have to be seen in public, often wore what we referred to as 1As, the whole box and dice, with badges, medal ribbons and so on,equivalent, I think, to the USAF Class A.

    Once away from the working environment, officers and senior NCOs who intended to go to the Officers’ or Sergeants’ Mess were required to change out of flight or working clothing into a form of dress that would be the equivalent of acceptable civilian dress in a good club or restaurant. These rules were strictly enforced. Nobody was allowed off the base in working dress.

    Then along came the 1990s and lo and behold we find senior Air Force officers swanning around in all but the most formal occasions in flight suits. Needless to say, once the leaders started dressing down, the rest of the troops were only too happy to follow. Nowadays, almost everyone wears flight suits or camo gear no matter where they’re working, and anything goes off base, or so it seems. No doubt the messes have been forced to relax their rules too.

    My father used to say that people tended to behave as they dressed, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that.


    28 Sep 09 at 8:35 am

  3. I don’t know, Mique. This might be a generational thing, or maybe it’s just the time and place I’m in, but I tend to think that if clothes are clean and respectable (right now I’m in my office wearing off-white jeans and a blue cotton sweater) they should be fine. Where I work, we don’t wear wife-beater t-shirts and beer logos, but we don’t dress up, either. This is not to say that we’re not disciplined and we don’t get things done. Expectations are actually extremely high. We just don’t worry all that much about what people wear, unless it’s extremely inappropriate. There’s a guy I hired last year who has quickly become a go-to guy, highly respected, and he’s spent this whole summer in shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and sandals. That’s just what Ben likes to wear. And as long as he does the work he does as well as he does, AND he’s clean and tidy – his clothes aren’t ripped or dirty, and his shorts come to his knees – why would I care?

    Granted, this isn’t the military, but where I live, this is increasingly what it looks like.


    28 Sep 09 at 9:58 am

  4. Some employers distinguish between dealing-with-the-public and back-office employees, with the front-line ones being expected to dress more formally because they represent the company.

    That’s yet another reason I prefer back-office or behind-the-scenes work.

    And sometimes people put the expectations on themselves. Banks, phone companies etc expect their front-line female employees to dress in a certain style; they don’t require them to spend most of a small salary doing so. And when a friend told me she needed to buy a new dress for a work-related social event because her co-workers would criticize her if she didn’t, I was astonished at her attitude. I tend to avoid such things, but if I had to, I certainly wouldn’t be buying a new outfit each time so as to stop gossip among my co-workers.


    28 Sep 09 at 12:55 pm

  5. I don’t know if I’m conflicted about this or a bit confused about it. I think I generally dress to make other people feel comfortable. So when, in another job, I traveled to small Russian cities, I dressed down a bit so I didn’t look like I came from the soap Santa Barbara, ie, didn’t look like a snotty, rich American jerk. But at conferences in Moscow, where women really dress up (unabashed business sexy), I tended to dress up.

    In other situations I use clothes to project a certain image. If I want something from someone, I dress to look like someone who looks like their notion of an Important Person. I’m a very polite person, which can be read as “passive” or “a pushover,” so I use clothes to counter that. I try to dress like someone you wouldn’t screw with.

    So most of my dressing has to do with influencing/comforting my audience. I work at home, so “getting dressed for work” means putting on a pair a sweats and tshirt. For awhile I wore pretty much the same thing when I went out to the store or bank. But one day I decided to dress up a bit, and I found that I behaved a little differently — I stood a bit straighter, I didn’t shlump around. I don’t know what that’s about. Is it just socialization? You know — I had it rammed into my head as a kid and adolescent that clothes make the man. Or do clothes influence behavior? I looked more “professional” so I acted that way? What MaryF writes suggests it was my upbringing; what Mique writes suggests that clothing does affect behavior. I don’t know.


    28 Sep 09 at 1:38 pm

  6. There is a sexual difference here. My company’s dress code for male workers is about three lines: “Business” means suit or slacks and blazer–either way with dress shirt and tie. “Business Casual” means you can take off the blazer. Then they got to women’s dress and pretty well said “we know business attire when we see it.” Mind you, a good third of senior staff are female. There just doesn’t seem to be a simple equivalent to the “Class A” and “Class B” male outfit.
    I also tend to abide by the Beau Brummel Rule: “If you notice how a man is dressed, that man is NOT well dressed.” Women are–different–in that regard. (Just an observation: not complaining.)
    By the way, in my present office, ties stopped being mandatory a year or so back, but we each have one in a drawer, and a blazer within easy reach. We’re allowed to perform analysis in slacks and dress thirts–polo shirts allowed on Friday–but we can’t brief that way. A briefer without a tie is considered to lack authority, and a briefer going to another building has to have a suit or slacks and blazer in addition to the dress thirt and tie to show proper respect.


    28 Sep 09 at 6:27 pm

  7. Finally, this is an issue I can address. I admit I was rather lost, intellectually, when you were discussing philosophy. However, clothes and their importance and meaning have always been a sore point with me. Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I wore school clothes from JC Penney’s via the benevolence of an aunt who worked there. And in north Alabama that was ok but not as trendy as Bobbie Brooks and whatever those other brands were. As did most people my age in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I wore old jeans, my boyfriend’s flannel shirts etc. And in some ways, I’ve never gotten over it. I’ve worked in libraries most of my life, so, to keep those jobs, I dressed if not fashionably at least in acceptable business dress. Since I moved to Florida in 2003 where everyone dresses down, I have to say I’ve regressed to my youth. I wear slacks and shirts from Goody’s or Target and occasionally t-shirts. Here, no one thinks less of you. I agree that formal dress has its place but I’m happy not to have to practice it on a daily basis.


    28 Sep 09 at 7:47 pm

  8. I think it takes a lot more effort to dress well as a woman than as a man. For business – except, perhaps, in an area such as Mab describes, where local customs are different – the look should not be showy. I sometimes notice other women’s clothing, and the business look I admire is, well, right. The colours are right, from the shoes to the blouse. The clothing is conservative in cut and style, no plunging necklines or high hemlines or skin-tight fit. There’s something about it that is feminine, perhaps a touch of colour in the accessories – it’s not that old ‘dress for success’ look, in which women dressed like men. And I have some idea just how hard it is to put a look like that together – not just once, but several times a week! It must take an incredible amount of shopping just to get the right styles in the right colours and sizes. Men seem to have a far smaller range of clothing and accessories to choose from. A suit – the best he can afford, but it’ll last for years – a couple of plain shirts, a tie or two, some plain dark socks and shoes, and he can go almost anywhere. Compare that to searching for a blue blouse to complete an outfit, especially in a year in which the buyers have decided everyone is wearing shades of brown!

    It’s easier for women to get things wrong, too, from the bare skin in a business setting to the woman I recall who showed up at a casual social event in a stretchy black bodysuit and decked out with assorted chains around her neck when all the other women were wearing dresses and pants outfits that were slightly more dressy than those worn in a casual office.


    29 Sep 09 at 6:45 am

  9. Yes, I suppose the “rules” are different for men and women, and also in each culture. In the office I ran in Russia, during the hot summer months the women would wear transluscent tops with nothing under them or midriff-baring shirts. It seemed wildly inappropriate to me, but after several emails back and forth to the home office, I decided that it wasn’t my business. If they thought it was okay to dress like that in their country, who was I to say? My only interference was when we were meeting with some DC bigwig; then I said that Washington folks are conservative, so please cover up.

    I know an American woman who is absolutely brilliant in her field, but she is incredibly unkempt — messy hair, badly fitting clothes — and I think it has kept her back. On the one hand, I think: come on, you idiots, read her work, and don’t look at her clothes. On the other hand, I think: come on, lady, buy one nice suit and comb your hair. I admire people who have their own style and damn the world, but I’m just not one of them.


    29 Sep 09 at 10:31 am

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