When I was in court earlier this week, I was chatting with two older people (i.e. baby boomers) who made the observation that I was dressed more stylishly than the average attorney. I appreciated their words at the time, though upon reflection I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m not wearing anything unusual or inappropriate – wasn’t that a bit of a back-handed compliment?” While I do not have to wear a suit and tie to work every day, I certainly must do so when I go to court. And since going to court is not something I take lightly, I dress my best every time I appear there.
It is increasingly clear to me that many in our parents’ generation, i.e. people now in their 50’s and 60’s, think dressing not only well, but properly, is some sort of faux pas. Regardless of whatever good intentions they may (or may not) have had in adopting this attitude, that generation has a lot to answer for, with respect to the decline of standards of dress, concomitant with a decline in standards of socially acceptable behavior. It is no wonder that society is such a mess, if the standards by which one is to move in society are now as completely relative as everything else.
For example, take the traditional wedding or party invitation, where we are asked to attend an event via an actual paper card that arrives by post. If we were young adults living in, say, 1941 rather than 2011, we would know exactly what to wear to such an occasion, depending on the nature of the event and at what time of day it would be taking place. If we were at all unsure, we could ask for the guidance of the older generation of parents and other relatives, not only because of their presumed wisdom and experience in such matters, but also because we would think it important to present ourselves in as best a light as we can – not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of our family’s reputation.
By contrast, nowadays we see such things as guests wearing tuxedos and black cocktail dresses to daytime weddings. We see men wearing suits without ties or proper dress shoes to semi-formal receptions. We see ladies showing almost as much bare skin at an event held in a place of business or a house of worship, as they would while lounging poolside.
And unfortunately, these people are our parents.
It is no wonder then, that so many of my contemporaries seem completely lost when it comes to knowing what they are supposed to wear for a particular occasion. They do what younger people have always done, which is to turn to their parents for advice if they are unsure what to do. And the response they receive means that they, too, are going about in society improperly dressed, with improper behavior to match.
Just this past Sunday for example, at the high mass at my parish, a 20-something young woman in short shorts that left little to the imagination simply left the church while the recessional hymn and procession was taking place, crossing directly in front of the celebrant and servers as they were halfway down the aisle. Rather than trying to get away because she had somewhere to be, she was standing outside the church laughing and chatting with friends for quite a long time after mass. And while it is always a bit too easy to jump on the “blame the parents” bandwagon, we do have to ask: where did she learn that this sort of dress, this sort of behavior, was acceptable?
That an attorney should dress well for court should not be considered something unusual. He is paid to represent his client in front of the judicial branch of government, and as a body which ultimately represents and protects the needs of the people, the authority of that body is due respect and deference. Simply putting on a suit and tie and showing up because you have to, with no consideration as to looking your best, is no indication that a practitioner of the law has any great respect for the place where he is appearing. He is going through the motions, but would just as soon appear in scrubs.
Similarly, a guest who is formally invited to a social event ought to take the honor of being asked to attend seriously. It is not just a party he is attending, like a casual backyard barbecue with the neighbors or an impromptu round of birthday drinks. In both his witness and his presence, the guest is helping to firm up and maintain the social bonds which keep our civilization from teetering over the precipice into the oblivion of anarchy.
I am not suggesting that we have to go back to a sort of extreme formality of the time of our great-grandparents, with rigid and ultimately ridiculous codes for dress or socializing. There is a great deal to be said for the level of ease and comfort in which we live today, in many respects, and not just in our clothing. A more relaxed way of life allows people of good will to get to know each other better, and more quickly.
Yet for all of its benefits, this universal relaxing of codes has also lead to a laxity in standards: not only of dress, but also of behavior, and ultimately in attitudes. It is a kind of sartorial relativism, paralleling the moral relativism which the baby boomer generation did such a thorough job in trying to indoctrinate with us, their children. The end result has been to leave their offspring not only completely confused about what they are and are not supposed to wear to work, to church, or a social event, but also opened them up to accepting the idea that everything is relative, from antisocial behavior to personal responsibility, morality, the accumulation of material resources, and so on.
The solution for you, gentle reader, is to take on the task of doing what younger generations have always done: rebel against your parents. If dad tells you it is fine not to wear a tie to a funeral, or mum tells you to wear something to a party because it looks like something a Kardashian or “Real Housewife” wore, thank them, smile politely while backing away, and go consult someone else, perhaps someone in your circle of friends with a reputation for always being well-behaved and well-dressed. It may very well be that wisdom, in this and in other instances, will come from your peers, rather than your parents.