How can we tell when it is Halloween now that everybody is playing dress-up all year?
Businesspeople dress up as vacationers. Urban residents dress up as cowhands. Travelers dress up as sunbathers. Respectable ladies dress up as hussies. Honest gentlemen dress up as thugs. Grownups dress up as children. Schoolchildren dress up as all of the above.
Miss Manners supposes she wouldn't mind if everyone were having a rollicking good time at this. She would still regret the confusion and the aesthetic mess, but she would manage to bear up. Etiquette is supposed to keep track of the proper dress for particular occasions, but if no one cares, she would gratefully retire to the hammock and let them play.
The problem is that people do care. The more liberty that is taken with dress, the more severe the etiquette problems that arise.
Some are complaints that people have about the way other people dress. Other people, Miss Manners is told, are indecent, disrespectful and just plain disgusting. They spoil the cityscape by going around half-naked. They spoil the workplace by making it look unprofessional. They spoil social events by refusing to dress up. They spoil public events by exposing those near them to smelly and unsightly body parts.
The rest are equally vehement complaints that people have about others who complain about the way they dress. Those people, Miss Manners is told, are shallow, narrow-minded and dictatorial. They judge by appearances instead of intrinsic worth. They have puritanical notions about the body. They think they can interfere with others' comfort and self-expression.
This is a classic etiquette fight, in that both sides are highly emotional and neither side really understands the subject. They work themselves up attacking or defending particular fashions and expand that to condemn one another's characters. But because they fail to understand the social function of clothing, they miss the point.
Everybody talks about comfort, especially those who are wearing pants too tight or too loose for them. And everyone talks about self-expression, especially slaves to fashion. What no one articulates in these arguments is that clothing is a social language that everyone reads, consciously or not. Any job counselor, costume designer or defense lawyer will attest to that.
Is this shallow? Well, it is undoubtedly on the surface. But sometimes that is all one can see, and even those with the opportunity to dig deeper still have to deal with the surface.
Unlike beauty or other physical characteristics, dress is presumed to be subject to some degree of choice. You may choose to be as close or as remote from the prevailing convention of the time and occasion as you like, but the distance will be read as reflecting your attitude. This is why movie stars and hip-hop musicians dress so differently when they go to court. Such symbolism is powerful, and those who use it to lie should not be surprised or offended when others take these statements at face value and presume them to be childish or criminal.
Except on Halloween, of course. That's symbolism's day off.
Dear Miss Manners:
I learned that when I am dining and have to excuse myself from the table, I should place my napkin on my chair, so that my fellow diners do not have a used napkin sitting next to their dining plates and food.
However, in all my adult years, I have yet to see even one other person do this, even those with traditionally impeccable manners. Everyone puts his or her napkin on the dining table. Have I been misinformed?
Your information is correct. Miss Manners regrets to inform you that your friends, apparently, are not. Even in trivial matters, it is not a good idea to presume that what you see going on around you is the gold standard of behavior.
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) 2005, Judith Martin