Miss Manners: Dress codes still carry symbolic weight

October 4, 2011

DEAR MISS MANNERS: When I go to funerals, I see people dressed like they are going to the beach. I know times have changed, but it’s hard for me to accept this dress code. Also, when is it time to stop wearing white? Years ago, Labor Day was when we stopped.

GENTLE READER: Dress does change over time, but these particular codes are still in effect. You have only to look at funerals connected with national tragedies to see that black is still the respectful color to wear. As for the rule against white between Labor Day and Memorial Day, you have only to look — well, you probably have to look at Miss Manners herself, as she may be the only person to adhere to it.

She tracks two generations of change in attitude. First there was a generation who felt that dress codes violated their basic freedom and that the Bill of Rights had a clause protecting them from ever having to dress up.

In turn, they produced a generation unfamiliar with such codes, and astonished and amused about what purpose they could possibly serve.

The answer is that they serve both aesthetic and symbolic purposes. And here is the reply to the next remark, which will be, “But my generation doesn’t care about those things”:

Oh, yes, they do. From the time they were small, they harangued their parents about the importance of letting them conform to the dress codes of their peers at whatever cost. When they marry, they approximate traditional formal styles and expect their guests to comply with the standard, sometimes to the point of hysteria.

By their own admission — those appeals to parents — they have been using dress codes to judge their peers all their lives. To see the importance of complying to the dress codes of the society at large, they have only to observe the startling changes in appearance made by the pop stars they admire when those trend-setters find themselves facing trial by jury.

It is not that anyone believes that what is hanging on the body is more important than what is inside the heart and soul. But it takes a long time, sometimes forever, to peer into the heart and soul, so we all use dress choices as an instantly recognizable system of symbolism. Sportswear at a funeral symbolizes, “Well, I have to stop by here, but it’s not the most important part of my day.”

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Following the BYOB invite to a friend’s 40th birthday party hosted by two of his best girlfriends, came another request for donations to a “travel fund” to send him on a trip. It said, “If you wish to contribute, please contact hostess ...”

A couple of days later, they sent another message about the gift/fund: “If you wish to contribute, please contact hostess ...” Yesterday I received a THIRD request for donation with a suggested amount of $25 to $100 that “friends are giving,” then a note to say, “If you don’t want to, that’s fine.” What is your opinion on this?

GENTLE READER: That you should decline this invitation before they turn you over to a collection agency.

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

@ 2011, by Judith Martin

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