Acry of freedom went up when dress codes were abolished. Comfort! Creativity!
At last, a civilized society had recognized that it is what's inside a person, not outside, that counts. Even such oppressed minorities as schoolchildren, office workers and fashionistas finally gained the right to throw off all strictures (and practically all garments).
And what are we doing with this privilege?
Trying to end it, from what Miss Manners hears.
Schools and offices are reinstituting regulations and, so far, they are not encountering the sort of revolutionary opposition that had made them drop the ones they had. Airlines are wondering how to placate customers who complain about sitting next to exposed and (they inevitably add) smelly flesh. High-priced restaurants are fretting that a single baseball cap will drive away untold numbers of patrons who value "atmosphere." The fashion industry has switched from recommending that grown-ups dress like their children to suggesting that they dress like their grandparents.
What went wrong?
One reason that dress codes were easy to demolish is that those who fought to save them were in the untenable position of opposing comfort and creativity. Other arguments went unheard (as Miss Manners knows, because she was making them at the top of her ladylike voice) while these charges were being made.
And they will be made again. Miss Manners is not so naive as to believe that lessons learned from experience are remembered once the dissatisfactions that arose from the experience are removed. We just now happen to be in a period where the problems of rule-free clothing have become generally apparent.
While everyone gives voice to the desire for comfort, it is not a genuine concern for a sizeable number of people. Low-slung pants, stiletto heels and skin-tight jeans are no more comfortable than were such equally faddish styles as high, stiff collars and corsets. But those who really do put comfort above all turned out to be thinking only of their own comfort, however much discomfort it causes others who happen to be jammed up against them.
Creativity also offends others when it takes such forms as obscene slogans and threatening symbols. But it even rattles those who endorse it. For many, dressing has become too competitive, too confusing or -- of all things -- too boring.
Parents and teachers focus on how distracting and expensive it is for teenagers to dress to -- as they claim -- express themselves, but when the competition is free-form, even professionals find it overwhelming. Fashion arbitrators are notorious for promulgating ever-changing and outrageous styles for others while they stick to wearing black basics.
Others simply don't know what to wear. Confusion is rampant because the claim that clothing choices will not be interpreted -- that lofty argument about caring only about what is inside the heart, as if that could be glimpsed -- is false. Miss Manners finds it pathetic that innocent people who choose to dress as hookers or jailbirds are surprised and indignant when they are treated as being loose or suspicious.
Employers have come to realize that unprofessional dress symbolizes unprofessional attitudes to outsiders, and may even foster these in the workers themselves. And people who are told to wear whatever they like to a social event are well aware that they could still be judged as being over- or underdressed for the occasion.
Strangest of all is the absence of variety that comes with an absence of rules. Clothing conventions, like any social code, cover a myriad of conditions, including whether it is day or night, what season it is and what the venue or occasion is. When these faded out of use, only two amorphous styles were left: casual and wedding prom.
Miss Manners only asks for some semblance of order, not that everyone dress as she happens to see fit. Although she does note with astonishment that upswept hair, long skirts, brooches and gloves have been declared the latest fashion.
Dear Miss Manners:
The topic of brunch was under discussion in my home this weekend, and what was at debate was the proper time brunch is served. Keeping with proper etiquette, can you please inform me?
At that morning hour when your guests can manage proper etiquette. Of course Miss Manners knows that they are polite all the time, but she suggests not pushing it by scheduling brunch before they are awake enough to enjoy making conversation or waiting until they are hungry enough to feel cranky. Generally, this means starting some time between 10 a.m. and noon.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2004, Judith Martin