In the Great Annual Clothing Etiquette Battle, Natives vs. Tourists, which side are you going to be on?
Both, Miss Manners would guess, if you take your vacation during part of the summer and are home the rest of the time. Then you can declare, from one week to the next, with equal vehemence:
"Those people look disgusting" and "Hey, it's my vacation and I'm going to be comfortable."
These twin positions, as irony-free as the offending clothes are iron-free, are usually held successively, depending on the turf.
But people who have summer houses become skilled at holding them simultaneously, so that they can express disgust at the styles of transient visitors, while also expressing indignation that the year-round residents don't like their own appearance.
The transients' styles are attributed to bad taste and orneriness, and the year-round residents' attitude to envy and orneriness.
When an effort is made to drag Miss Manners into the fray, it is always by the home team. People on both sides naturally expect that she will maintain that local standards of dress should be upheld by visitors, and would be shocked if she said, "Aw, let them hang their bellies out and run around barefoot if it makes them happy." (Etiquette is not widely known for citing happiness as a goal.)
Indeed, Miss Manners is not about to come out on the side of "Who cares?" But neither is her position as simple as demanding conformity with the customs of natives going about their daily business. She does not, for example, require tourists in her native village, Washington, D.C., to carry briefcases.
What makes the argument so difficult is the failure of both sides to acknowledge that clothing is highly symbolic. All clothing battles, not only this one but those of parents or schools vs. students, and employers vs. employees, are about symbolism. Dressing within the acceptable range for place and purpose symbolizes respect; not doing so is a sign of disrespect for the place or purpose.
But combatants keep claiming that the issue is aesthetics or decency or freedom. This is a mistake, not only about the basis of the problem, but in terms of trying to defend a position -- either position.
Individual taste, changing styles and the preferences of different ages make aesthetics impossible to codify.
Besides, etiquette does not demand that you look appealing. There is a particularly nasty subdivision of this argument now, in which those who do not have what the young and slim term perfect figures are accused of offending young narrow eyes if they don't wear sheets over their heads.
Beauty is not the issue.
Decency plays a part, of course, but that too fluctuates. Miss Manners never got over her disappointment when she found it no longer possible to shock people with a glimpse of a well-turned ankle. But if the issue was simply covering certain parts of the body, there wouldn't be anywhere a fastidious person could not appear in pajamas.
The greatest rallying cry in clothing battles is one of outrage at the restriction of freedom. Miss Manners has always been suspicious of the demand for individual creativity on the part of teenagers arguing their right to dress exactly like one another, down to the same brand names, and adults arguing their right to dress like teenagers.
Individual expression cannot be -- nor is it intended to be -- judged independently of the social context.
Ignoring prevailing standards -- of a place (such as a town or a church), of a group (such as one's family or one's peers), of an activity (such as a wedding or a sport) -- is almost always a deliberate affront. (If hardships or other circumstances prevent one from dressing within the prevailing standard, one need only say so, and etiquette understands and forgives.)
The tourist who flouts the local dress standard is showing disrespect, just as the person who dresses inappropriately for work or a party (wearing shorts to a formal gathering being no less rude than wearing a suit to a picnic) clearly demonstrates indifference to the job or hosts.
Yet tourists are not pursuing the same activities as the non-vacationing natives. They are sunning themselves or running around in the heat looking at things the natives haven't noticed in years. So while the semi-nudity of beach dress does not belong on the streets, tourists need not dress as if they are going to work. Loose clothing and super-comfortable shoes are acceptable.
What's that? You think they ought to be acceptable for work too? Please reread the above. It's too hot to argue.
Twice, when hosting a dinner party, we have had guests walk around a good part of our house, only to discover that they have left a trail of dog droppings from the bottom of their shoes.
While this is both humorous and distressing, is it appropriate for the host or hostess to take the steps necessary to clean the mess thoroughly? Or should we act as though it never happened and go on with the party?
Your etiquette problems begin, Miss Manners suspects, with your dog.
One guest might have accidentally stepped in something anywhere on the street. Two, in such a matter, constitute a trend, suggesting that there is something untoward going on on your porch.
The thoughtful host says, "Oh, dear, let me give you a wet rag for your shoe" and quickly cleans up the rug, while making apologetic and, if possible, humorous comments about the dog and the neighborhood.
A pungent household is just not a good setting for a party.