Mannequins look on disapprovingly.

Casual Is Overrated

Finally, we were invited to an event! We received a real invitation, in the mail. An actual paper thing in an envelope, with a postage stamp. How novel, right? I was so excited picturing us kissing the kids goodnight, waving to the sitter, and striding out the door for a night of conversation and cocktails among well-heeled adults.

Oh, my vintage raspberry cocktail dress would be perfect. At last, a chance to wear it! Add black pumps, a little cashmere sweater, low ponytail, minimal jewelry. My husband would wear a suit and tie, or maybe a sports coat. Hurray! Grown-ups doing grown-up things. It's about time.

I can barely express the depth of disappointment I felt when my husband informed me of the suggested dress code: CASUAL. Again!

It had been months since I last "got dressed." No, I hadn't been naked in the interim. But with every aspect of daily life, from the boardroom to the dining room, requiring only dark jeans and a blouse, there'd been no occasion to put on a dress, hose (bare legs with pumps? not me, sister), and a "full face" of make-up (as opposed to tinted moisturizer and lipstick).

Way back in spring there'd been a religious event. The ceremony and luncheon were held at the family's house of worship on a weekend morning. Not a formal affair. But you'd imagine wanting to show up in something beyond your "good" Crocs. Or maybe not. In my slim but modest pale-blue 60s dress, nude-toned heels, and cream handbag, I was the most dressed up woman in the venue. You can bet mine was the lone strand of pearls. My outfit (vintage or not) was entirely appropriate for the occasion. So why was I the only one dressed this way?

Perhaps for the same reason you so often see soccer shin guards in church and sweatshirts on airplanes? I'd argue it's a combination of factors. Self-absorption plays a part ("Why should I have to dress up for this?"). Pure laziness is probably on the list. But the single biggest factor may be our overwhelming desire for unmitigated, uninterrupted comfort. It's reflected in every aspect of our society. From our ubiquitous comfort food (just try finding a venue without snacks for sale), to our over-sized cars and overstuffed furniture, to our need to (with lightning speed) eradicate the slightest ache or pain.

My mother told me more than once, "If you're too comfortable, you don't look good." Sounds crazy, but oh, it's true. "If your waistband is loose enough to be comfortable, you don't look polished," she'd say. "It's hard to breathe," I'd complain. "You don't need to breathe so much. It won't kill you." And she was right. I still wear the waistband on my dressier clothes just a hint too small. Reminds me to hold in my stomach. Can't slouch. And certainly can't overeat without serious discomfort (cheapest diet plan going). No, I'm not a fan of pain. I'm no masochist. But sometimes, propriety trumps uninterrupted comfort. 

And if not propriety, how about showing respect? How about letting your hosts know you are grateful enough to have been included that you made an effort (and will withstand whatever slight discomfort is involved) to dress up for their special occasion? Showing up in the same outfit you'd wear to the grocery store is a slap in the face to the people who invited you. It doesn't say, "I care so much and feel so close to you, I can just be myself." It says, "I care so little, I can't be bothered to do any better. Take it or leave it."

Most women I know spend considerable time sitting in salons, happily having hair coiffed and nails painted. For them, it's an absolute necessity and without it they feel slovenly. Alas, for me, the salon is no spa. It's more a rehab center: No place you want to end up, but sometimes very necessary.

But these same women, who wouldn't dream of missing a hair or nail appointment, take their impeccable grooming no further. Whether they are trendy, traditional, or in between, these modern women all seem to agree: Casual is the way to go. They don't just dislike dressing up. They dread it. They'd do most anything to avoid it. They find ways to get out of events that require it.

So what's this aversion to putting on real clothes? Again, I think in large part it's about comfort. Somehow we've all come to believe we are entitled to feel completely relaxed all the time. Why wait all day long for that sigh of relief when you kick off your heels and slip on your fuzzy slippers? Just cut to the chase and wear your Uggs to work. And don't forget your Pajama Jeans.

Believe me, I know tired. Bone tired. It's not hard to understand why most of us don't want to dress up for a trip to the supermarket or to sit in the carpool line. And travel today is no longer the luxury experience it once was. An airplane seat is a step away from a medieval torture device. No need to add stilettos to the equation. Really, I get it. 

But how about a dinner party? Or a wedding? Or a funeral? For some reason, even those occasions don't make the cut anymore. And I find myself being stared at there as if I, not the women in flip-flops, were woefully inappropriate. Sheesh.

It's a sad state of affairs when my husband wants to take me out for our anniversary, but we can't find a single restaurant, in a city of 5 million people, that requires a jacket and tie. Not one "formal dining establishment" left. One by one, they've gone casual or gone away. The last time my husband wore a jacket and tie to a restaurant, the only other man similarly dressed was the waiter. Dinner for two cost more than $150 (clearly, this wasn't Golden Corral), but no one felt the need to dress the part.

A close friend and confidant, upon hearing my argument for sloth, self-interest, and an obsession with comfort as the root of our sartorial rut, offered his own theory. One that makes sense, and is more interesting than mine. It all started with the slow death of formality, he said, and the birth of the hippie movement in the mid-60s. Anything smacking of "the establishment" became undesirable. It was the beginning of "anti-elitism" (shorthand for "We frown upon anything that makes us feel poor and stupid, even if that stance increases our odds of remaining that way").

Gone were waist cinchers, wiggle dresses, gloves and cocktail hats (which, ironically, were de rigueur for all echelons of society, not only the rich and well-educated). In came bell bottoms and burning bras. Sure, a lot was gained in those years. But did we have to lose the shirtwaist and the pencil skirt in the bargain? 

In the 80s, my friend continued, the pendulum swung back just a bit to the relatively more formal (than boho) preppie look epitomized by Ralph Lauren's image of the perfect American life -- clean cut, impeccably (albeit casually) dressed. Call it "rich and rumpled."

But prosperity was short-lived. Bubbles burst, and we have now settled into what my friend calls "lowest common denominator fashion" -- think J. Crew and the GAP. Nice enough, but never more than "business casual." Why? Because anti-elitism has become a nationwide movement. These days, dressing up is equated with snobbery. It's frowned upon because it is considered a political statement. It's considered "elitist."

Rather than ask the obvious and politically charged question of why we, as a nation, prefer ignorance, poverty, and poor manners over intelligence, affluence, and social graces (in our leaders or ourselves), I will point out that despite our obsession with flip-flops, Mad Men has a very large audience. So what? Well, that tells me there's still hope. Hope that one day, I'll get to wear that raspberry cocktail dress at a cocktail party and no one in jeans and a blouse will give me the stink eye.

I'd argue that most of us who tune in to watch the goings on at Sterling-Cooper are interested in the plot, sure. But what we're really there for are the clothes. Oh, how we long to dress like Betty or Joan! How we wish our men wore slim suits and ties, and even hats, like Don and Roger. 

I'm thinking we should get together.

Somebody, please invite us to something formal. Black tie, white tie. Any tie at all. Give me the chance to be really uncomfortable for a few hours -- happily unable to bend over or eat too much. Give me the chance to dress up. I will love every minute of it. And I'll bring a really nice hostess gift. I'm thinking maybe something vintage ... 


Liza Dolensky

I feel mostly the same in Brazil. This anti-elitism you talk about is even more serious here, where everything that goes against the most basic rules of etiquette is glorified because it’s “spontaneous”. It’s common to see people wearing flourish shorts and crocs in Proms and those people are considered to be “stylish”. My husband and I do not take part in this kind of thing. And I must confess I often feel uncomfortable when wearing a plain simple, but well tailored $30 dress, makes me the most well dressed woman in a place. And people look at me and say I spend so much in clothes, but it’s not true at all. Most people pay $200 in a pair of jeans that doesn’t fit well, but is trendy, and do not spend the same amount in a good dress or jacket. It’s just awful.

Liza Dolensky

Wonderfully written! I share in your frustration in the lack of anyone’s interest in dressing for an occasion! My husband and I are often the only ones dressed in many events, to the point of becoming known for having a flair for the dramatic. This ‘casual’ obsession has pervaded nearly everything! last summer I was in attendance of several polo matches…yes, even there it was sloppy casual. I was happily dressed in a cotton summer dress with wide brimmed hat and enjoyed my mimosas from actual stemware.

Liza Dolensky

I think that being able to dress up is one reason re-enacting is so popular. And I’ve been known to wear my Victorian and neo-Victorian gowns any time I’m in to mood. Don’t wait for an event, just dress up any time you feel like it. So what if they stare at you. Stand taller and smile, knowing you look great.

Liza Dolensky

Excellent article!
But you know what? This is the tip of the iceburg. Our attitude toward ourselves is reflected in the very attire issues you discuss. It boils down to a pathetic absence of self-respect, and it reveals itself not only in our attire, but also our vocabulary (self-respecting and mature people do not lace conversations with profanity), our enjoyment of trash for entertainment, our sexual promiscuity… We treat ourselves and others as unimportant, unworthy of courtesy or value except insofar as they are convenient or further self-interest.
Thank you – you’ve given me a LOT to think about!

Liza Dolensky

Not being appropriately dressed for an event is my pet peeve. I father passed away almost two years ago, and my brother and I were serious and formal. It was very small gathering. My dad had been a man of the Dapper Don Draper era and so we thought of him and how he would have hated every person at the funeral home (for other funerals) because of what they wore. It added levity believe me since sentences were “Look at that guy, dad would have hated his pants.”

Liza Dolensky

THANK YOU!! I love clothing, and “getting dressed”. My family has always clung to the old fashioned standards, as do I. You wear a dark dress and low heels to a funeral. You wear a dress (never white and no shorter than an inch above knee)and heels to a wedding. You take pride in your appearance even on the most casual of days. No sweatpants to the grocery store in our family. At the very least it was jeans, a blouse and shoes (never slippers). You were clean and well groomed. Now, where I live, anything that looks as if you PLANNED to put those items of clothing together is considered elitist. I get dirty looks (along with other women who enjoy fashion) if I dare to go to the store in skinny jeans, either heels or boots, a sweater, accessories, styled hair and makeup. I think it’s a great idea for everyone who loves to dress to get together!!

Liza Dolensky

Great post Liza!

I feel the same way you do, and after having attended way too many so called “vintage clubs” where people where dressed in nothing but a corset and a bra basically while I was wearing a gown and dressed to the teeth, me and a friend decided to make our own formal dress party.

So we found this great house build in 1915 and had a three course dinner where the dress code was gowns and dress jacket/smoking.

It turned out great and we’ve decided to make it an annual event =)

Too bad you’re not in Sweden, or else we would definitely invite you next time!

Best regards, Effie

Liza Dolensky

I will never understand why people seem to believe we should still dress up for airplane travel. When it was a new thing, people dressed up because it was An Event. Now, it’s like being crammed in a cattle car, it’s dirty, and anything nice you wore would get all mussed up anyway. Dressing up to ride in a airplane now, would be like dressing up every time you ride in your car.

But…nowadays I get my formal dressing “fix” by attending steampunk conventions. Ladies in long formal gowns with corsets, hats, gloves…it’s beautiful.

Liza Dolensky

I read this and had my teenage girls read it as well. We all agree. We dress nicely most everywhere we go, and people look at us like freaks. We don’t mind though.

Liza Dolensky

I agree, but I just dress up. I get a few stares but far more compliments and some elderly people telling me “Oh you look just like….” someone from their past. I feel less myself when I do dress down, but I sort of understand that others feel less so when they dress up. My husband will not be the only one in a suit, but at least he will wear a nice shirt (especially if it’s paisley) and slacks.
And once a year I try to throw the event I want to go to. I can dress up to my heart’s content and the invite usually says something like “dress up/costume encouraged but not required,” depending on the party theme. I’m delighted to see people opt in, but I’m still happy to see my friends and family just show up, even in their dress casual.
Also, in addition to Mad Men, I would like to applaud, Kate Middleton. I’m not a big watcher of royals or celebrities, but I’m so pleased to have a real live young modern woman (albeit in a not-so-modern roleI) on the public stage to show some style and class and bring back hosiery and hats.

Liza Dolensky

I love this article.

Liza Dolensky

I LOVE this.

I think a lot of the problem is regional, too. I lived in NJ nearly most of my life, but moved to the fingerlakes region of NY a couple years ago. Some Swedish colleagues of my husband’s would have an annual themed cocktail party JUST so there was a party were people would dress up. The first one I went to, I wore a brocade sheath my grandmother made in 1966 with a silver heels and matching bag with black gloves.

But for the most part, people’s idea of dressing up IS getting out your nice birkies or crocs, paired with some wrinkly thing from Flax company or the local head shop. Whenever I go home to NJ, I am struck at how polished people look in comparison.

Liza Dolensky

Fabulous article! I’ve been talking to my husband about how I can’t find good clothes in common stores that fit me. I work in a casual office setting but I’m dying to wear more tailored outfits and dresses to work. He suggested I set aside a clothing allowance for the purchase of more tailored, well fitting clothing. Over the course of last year, I’ve had 3 opportunities to dress formal for parties/ceremonies for my husband’s job and although I was uncomfortable to begin with, it was so much fun!

Liza Dolensky

Thank you, for this well-written article.

Liza Dolensky

I mostly agree with you. I don’t care to dress up for work, our office is less than business casual even. And I’m fine with that.

I get the impression what bothers you more, and with which I greatly agree, is the inability to dress for social events—whatever they may be, from weddings to a quick evening meal out on a Tuesday.

And I’ll admit to being someone who considers wearing a nice pair of dark jeans with heels and a cute top and clutch as dressed up. And that is because most people here in the Upper Midwest are even sloppier than that! Wearing baseball caps in restaurants, flip flops outside of the beach, cheap screen printed t-shirts, etc. It’s so ugly. The upside is, when I’m dressed nicely anywhere I go I get treated better than most others. And that is something my grandmother always said: if you’re going shopping, even one quick errand, dress nice and put on some lipstick, and you’ll be surprised how people go out of their way for you. It’s so true!

Final thought: air travel today is nothing more than an easy way to ruin nice clothes. Invest in a sturdy hanging travel bag (I have one from my dad, bought in the early 80s, gorgeous leather). I almost always wear leggings and a tunic on a plane. It takes five minutes to switch into something nicer in an airport bathroom.

Liza Dolensky

Perfectly articulated!

Liza Dolensky

I found you through The Red Velvet Shoe! I work in a place that is business casual with “Casual Fridays.” I always joke that my co-workers dress every day like it’s casual day, then, on Friday, they dress like they are cleaning the garage. And what’s with this trend of wearing pajamas and slippers in public? Seriously? My biggest regret (being middle aged) are all those dresses I bought that fit me perfectly in my youth, that I was saving to wear to that “special occasion” that never came…and now I am selling them on line…LOL!

Liza Dolensky

I just discovered your blog via Couture Allure. Beautifully written piece and I wholeheartedly agree! Sadly many Australians suffer from a similar malaise. My solution, I frock up at every opportunity, dinner parties, out to dinner, any celebration, always a frock. I no longer care if I am the most dressed up person in the room, my frock (and heels/gloves/bag/hat) are getting an airing and I feel good in them. Not to mention the compliments and the fabulous conversation starters. I’m not always in a frock but even when I am just running errands my outfit is co-ordinated, clean & ironed and I have lipstick on. To echo Nicole’s comment, people treat you better when you are dressed better. Sad but true.

Pyjamas and slippers don’t cross the front door. And I refuse to own a pair of crocs, hideous items.

Liza Dolensky

I agree completely. I am a military member living in Italy and, after wearing the same uniform every day, I relish any opportunity to dress nicely. I wear my uniform with pride, but on my off days, I appreciate the individuality that nice clothing and a polished look allows.

I am lucky in where I live, that Italians still believe in dressing formally and appropriately. It’s sad to say that many Americans here with me do not agree! When going out to dinner, the fact that I can pick out Americans based on their unimpressive attire irks me. The tourist areas are wrought with crocs (which I don’t believe belong outside of a garden), flip flops, and torn blue jeans. Why anyone would spend money on blue jeans that are already ruined is beyond me.

Before I get too far off topic, I just wanted to applaud you for recognizing and addressing the issue so eloquently. I really enjoyed your article.

Liza Dolensky

That’s my girl!!!Didn’t I do a good job?

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