Sensitive about the outrageous but common notion that anything refined must also be snobbish and hypocritical, Miss Manners has never liked the stereotype of Opera Goers.
There is the inevitable lady in pearl dog-collar necklace and lorgnette, with a gentleman beside her who is wreathed in white walrus mustache and snores. But where? Where, outside of cartoons, does one actually find this fatuous couple, willing, for the sake of appearance and showing off, to endure any trial, even opera?
Not in the opera houses, surely, nor the cultural centers, nor other school or civic facilities where opera is presented these days.
Opera happens to be Miss Manners' sport (you didn't suppose it was mud wrestling, did you?), and she has never actually seen such people. When she looks at opera audiences -- or those at ballet, concerts or theater -- she sees stern young people wearing blue jeans and critical expressions, and radiant older faces atop office clothing.
This has always pleased Miss Manners enormously. Not only does she take pleasure in seeing people have a good time, but she can hardly imagine anything more ridiculous than submitting to entertainment that one doesn't enjoy.
Duty, certainly, and work, if necessary. But for people to endure being bored by their own recreation (which is the impression she gets from the listless bodies and blank faces of those who sit around a lot watching television) seems strange to her in a time when so many people shirk their obligations on the grounds that they're not amusing.
It is with some timidity, therefore, that Miss Manners now requests a small extra effort of the satisfied audiences of what are generally acknowledged to be "good" or "high" cultural performances.
But first she has a confession to make. Imagine this as a short aria. (Miss Manners fancies that she has all the makings of an opera singer except, unfortunately, one.)
The secret she must reveal at the top of her lungs is that, truthfully, she has occasionally caught a glimpse of a lady at the opera with pearls and lorgnette -- but not in the audience, nor on the stage. It was in the foyer mirrors.
Miss Manners' excuse is that she is an old-fashioned lady taking shameless advantage of an era when a wide range of clothing styles is unexceptional. If our standard is to wear "whatever makes you feel comfortable," well, that is what makes Miss Manners feel comfortable when she goes to the opera.
The reason for this brings her back to her request: Might it be possible, if it's not too much trouble or expense, for the audience to help just a little in restoring the sense of occasion to these grand events?
Miss Manners does not dress for the opera in the hope of showing off. On the contrary, being totally innocent of any ambition to be visually daring, she is aware that if she is noticed at all, it is probably with some (kind, she hopes) amusement at the maintenance of the old tradition.
Nor are those her only clothes, which she also wears to the grocery store, using the lorgnette to compare prices. Formality on the wrong occasion is even worse than misplaced informality.
Dressing for an event conveys respect for it. You may claim not to notice or care, but Miss Manners assures you that you would not like it if people showed up for your wedding in jogging suits or your funeral (could you register an opinion) in tennis clothes.
She is hardly asking people to follow her stylistic lead. Nor will she be the slightest bit difficult about any unwillingness to spend money on clothes when the price of the tickets is already a strain, or any plea about not having the time to change clothes in the rush from office to dinner to opera house. All such excuses will be accepted without question.
What is more, she recognizes that a number of different levels of dressing are appropriate, just as there are different levels in the theater. One would not want to dress for standing room as one might for sitting comfortably.
Excessive show has always been considered vulgar. At the height of the reign of formality, only on a few nights were evening clothes worn. The young should not be expected to dress as the elderly do (nor vice versa, which is more common now).
She only asks a bit more effort, within each person's capability and circumstances. When most people did regularly make such an effort, the clothing style was known as "Sunday best," without prejudice to one person's "best" compared with another's.
Miss Manners is well aware that some people will insist on interpreting any such effort as the flaunting of money. But something has changed since the invention of that stereotype about the snobbish life of the rich. No longer does it inspire sneers; nowadays, the reaction is more likely to be "If it's good enough for them, why can't I enjoy it, too?"
It would not be a bad idea to convey the notion that complex art is a treat; that it offers, in return for greater study, greater sensual enjoyment; that those who know what is best do not settle for the commonplace in culture, any more than in objects. So many people appear to be dissatisfied with lowest-common-denominator culture that it would be unwise to dismiss anything else as pretentious.
Miss Manners does not want to spoil the ambiance of those varied audiences she has been describing. She only suggests that some effort on their part to restore the idea that high culture is chic might be an incentive to others to discover new pleasures.
My local gift store sells a bridegroom's garter. It looks like a woman's black lace-and-elastic garter. I also have a faint memory of hearing about a ritual involving this item. However, I have never seen anyone use the garter in any way. What do they do with it? Thank you for enlightening me.
Miss Manners has no such memory. Perhaps she has blocked it out. She has been hoping for years that people would forget the old but vulgar tradition of throwing the bride's garter. As to uses of a bridegroom's lace garter, Miss Manners would very much appreciate not being enlightened.
These are the '80s. Is it still improper, while playing tennis, to mumble a curse or spit if you get a bug in your mouth?
Whenever someone prefaces an etiquette question by announcing what decade it is, Miss Manners knows she is in for a treat.
She is about to be required to imagine an era in which people who were unencumbered by human emotions performed odd feats that are obviously no longer possible.
No, people in previous decades did not think it any less proper to spit or curse on the tennis court than Miss Manners and other civilized people do in 1987.
But no, they weren't nitwits who would swallow a bug for the sake of manners. They quietly plucked extraneous animal life from their mouths. What they did have the grace to swallow was the curses.
1987, United Feature Syndicate Inc.