Don't ever allow yourself to be put on the committee in charge of formulating the dress code. Serve on the Cleanup Committee, serve on the Suggestions & Complaints Committee, but keep away from the Dress Code Committee if you value your sanity.
Miss Manners is offering this advice against her own interests, which is to say against the greater interests of the society. (She has a hard time telling these apart.)
The job needs to be done. In the absence of dress codes--generally understood ones for the society at large, and specific, often explicitly formulated ones for particular places and activities--we do not enjoy the happy freedom of comfort and individuality that opponents of dress codes would have us believe. Here's what we enjoy instead:
* People insulting one another unintentionally, because they are not familiar with the symbolic meanings they are conveying, and therefore wear baseball caps indoors or casual clothes to dressy events, unaware that others are interpreting their very presence as a show of disrespect.
* People insulting one another purposely, either by defying expectations or employing shock tactics, and getting away with it by feigning ignorance if caught.
* People allowing the fashion industry to take over the job of regulating clothing, although its aim is understandably to cause confusion and expense rather than order and relief.
If all that weren't enough burden on the civilized life, consider that when all of life is a costume party, costume parties are no longer possible. (Perhaps Miss Manners should be counting that one as a plus.)
When one or another of these situations leads to a crisis, the solution proposed is to promulgate a dress code. "This way, there will be no misunderstandings," declares some innocent person who does not understand what is to come.
Preliminary discussions are harmonious. Everyone agrees that the code must be simple and commonsensical. It should not cause anyone extra expense. It must not be substantively different for men and women, and it should allow exceptions for items of clothing pertaining to the wearer's nationality or religion. There will be no attempt to stifle anyone's individuality of expression (except that of the person whose startling appearance led to the clamor for a dress code).
A few bland examples are given: business attire to be worn on certain occasions, perhaps a ban on jeans and tank or halter tops, and a requirement of proper shoes. This is quickly followed by the promise that every effort will be made to interpret particular cases reasonably.
As it turns out, that last declaration apparently applies only to the committee. Everybody else is busy applying his threatened creativity to interpreting the rules.
A gentleman notes that the rules are not supposed to be sexist and then demands that ladies be required to wear neckties. A lady says that gentlemen should have to wear pantyhose. Someone whose foot is in a cast will note bitterly that wearing a proper shoe on it is not possible.
Business attire is challenged with the declaration that casual Monday-through-Friday is the modern business standard and illustrations from businesses that require bathing suits, paint-splattered overalls or tutus. Scornful questions are put about what is meant by jeans (does that mean anything made out of denim, including a three-piece suit?) and halter tops (then why not ban ball dresses at dances, because they are more revealing?).
You could take away the right of the citizens to vote and arouse less outrage.
So the committee retreats into withdrawing the guidelines and recommending that people use their individual judgment, which returns the situation to its original state, when it was agreed that something needed to be done.
Miss Manners agrees that reasonable people need to agree on the broad outlines of acceptability in appearance, and to be reasonable about interpreting what qualifies. What makes it difficult is that there is a strict requirement for reasonable people.
1999, Judith Martin