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Apr 4, 2010

Dressing for "me" or for "thee"

Happy whatever-you-may-celebrate-even-if-it's-nothing-at-all, everybody!

In response to Thursday's post about "age-approproate" dressing, a reader commented:
I think the degeneration of appropriate dress comes from a general decline of public civic life. We all have a civic responsibility to dress in an appropriate and dignified way.

The way we dress isn't just "all about me" but actually constitutes the culture of our families, our neighborhoods, our towns and cities. It makes up the civic backdrop of our community.

Now, I don't want there to be a dress code or anything, I think freedom to wear what you want is a big and important political freedom, but along with freedom comes responsibility, in fashion no less than any other area of life.
When I read this, I immediately had one of those "aha!" moments: Yes, I thought, that's exactly it!  It's great to dress as you please -- for you --  but how about the rest of us?

So I was in the lovely Hudson River town of Tarrytown yesterday with Michael, my mother, and the dogs -- just a trip out of the city on a lovely Spring day.

We bought soil and plants at a garden center in Ardsley, ate a picnic lunch in a local park, and had coffee and scones at a charming independent coffee cafe in town.  Everyone we saw seemed happy to be taking in the sun and fresh air: children, seniors, men and women and plenty of cheerful pets.

 But a few things caught my attention.  The contrast between the elegant, small-town setting and the way most of the young people were dressed -- men in flip flops, baggy cargo shorts and tee shirts, young women in flip flops, mini shorts and tees, multiple tattoos and piercings  (Do I really want to go there?) -- was jarring to me.  I guess I'm just from a different generation.  I witnessed no unruly behavior, just the opposite: everyone seemed perfectly pleasant and well-socialized.  But still...

I had a long conversation about it last night with Michael in relation to the comment up top.  Do we have any larger obligation to the community to dress in a more "formal" way in public?  Does informality in dress portend a breakdown in civic life?  Does one have anything to do with the other?

We concluded that, as much as we might long for the days when men wore suit jackets and women wore hats in public, we wouldn't want to feel like we had to dress any particular way.  Michael said that the history of public dress codes was more related to honoring the nobles on whose estate you lived than it was to self-respect or modesty.

If as citizens we have (ostensibly) the same ranking, then there's no reason to dress a particular way to honor anyone else -- not nobility or any sort of power greater than ourselves.

Most of the dress codes I'm familiar with, in fact, have to do with organized religion and it doesn't seem right that other people should have to abide by the laws of my religion and traditions, or vice versa.  If you want to dress up for Easter, that's fine.  But if I don't celebrate Easter, why should I have to?  

Anyway, this has been on my mind and I'd love to hear what you have to say about it.

Is an "anything goes" attitude toward dressing simply the price we pay to live in a "free" and essentially non-sectarian culture?

If we really don't care how we look to others, but other people consider it disrespectful towards them (or to ourselves, in their eyes), what should we do about it (if anything)?

Jump right in!


  1. I think the most obvious sign of social progress is diversity, and the opposite of ignorance is tolerance. So I'd honor my fellow citizens by giving them the benefit of doubt and dressing any way I please.

  2. What about honoring ourselves? Aren't we all worth more than sloppy clothes and messy hair. I think people have taken their freedom to dress as they want to the extreme. Cover your bodies, wear clothes that are at least clean and take a few minutes to take care of yourself! You can't expect someone else to respect you if you don't show that you respect yourself. I don't care if you wear pj pants and slippers but don't expect me to take you seriously with sponge bob across your a$$.

  3. i've got to vote for dressing to please yourself.

    as a kid, my parents always encouraged me to dress however i wanted. my mom used to say she couldn't wait to see what i would come down the stairs in. but this wasn't just about clothes. as a racially mixed family we were judged, mostly silently to our faces and loudly behind our backs. expressing myself through fashion gave me a confidence that helped me to become the unapologetically opinionated oona i am :). i cared more about-- and thought more about-- what i valued than what others valued. and had respect for others' choices as well.

    that said, on any given day you'd see me strolling the halls of my high school with blue lace pants and multicolored stars painted across my cheek.

    tattoos, cashmere, tiaras, flip flops, suits-- if it's in the name of self-expression, i'm all for it.

  4. Those dogs are so cute!!

    It's already been said here but I'll agree: I think that you should dress to please (and express) yourself, period.

    and 2. the way a lot of people dress shows, to me, more of a lack of respect for themselves than a lack of respect for me (or whoever might see them). I don't think they always are dressing to please themselves. And I don't think they're expressing themselves at all. I find it more pathetic than annoying.

  5. Sometimes I wonder... especially after a trip to Wal-Mart, if the eye pollution I just saw are people who think they look good instead of advertising their wares. I mean, does that middle aged woman dressed like a hooker really think she looks good? Does that guy in the white pants, jacket, half unbuttoned shirt, ton of gold jewelry and braided chest hair really think he's hot like that?

    I don't know. I do know that I have more respect for myself than to dress like that. Sure, you should dress how you want, but I think some sense of modesty, decency, and decorum should come into it somewhere.

  6. Wait, I have to amend that -- there's one thing I forgot about, and that's serious vulgarity. I do think people ought to respect certain social standards and not reveal anything (or display any language) that wouldn't be allowed on television. Maybe it's not common everywhere but I don't really enjoy giant curse words on guy's tee-shirts.

    I thought it was just low-class before I was a parent, now I find I am irritated by it.

    The funny thing is, the same kids, if they see your 4-year-old in the restaurant, will shush each other and not curse! It's like the giant F and C words don't exist on their clothes or something.

    truthfully I just roll my eyes but if I could enforce anything, that would be it.

  7. To the world at large, I don't want to see your grey Calvins, your tattoo inviting us to look to your nether regions and I really hate seeing you in your sleep wear.

    I love self expression and am not offended or freaked out by what I would not choose for myself. However - sloppy, vulgar or dirty has no place in public and those that stumble out their doors in this manner speak volumes about themselves.

  8. Peter, how could you have only been writing this blog for a few short months? You are such a natural, come up with the best thought-provoking topics, and I look forward to each new day's new post.

    As to dressing - I think I fall into the camp of express yourself, but be venue/event appropriate. I don't care what someone wears to Walmart - although I admit I am selfishly entertained by many outfits I see there. But I do care what you wear to a nice restaurant, theater, etc. I would never say anything to you, but I still care. In most respects, I like how we (as a society) accept casual dress* more frequently, but I would hate to see dressing up for special occasions go away completely. And "shock value" outfit? They just make me laugh, so I guess I'm not the intended audience.

    *Too bad that some people equate "casual" with any old damn thing they found wadded up in their hamper. ;-)

  9. Forgot - love the dog video! And your mom's purple jacket.

  10. I dress the way I want to be treated. Coordinated outfit, makeup, shoes that give me some height (5'2" needs boost) telegraphs to people I'm worth the effort. As an older chick (58) I think it's easy to succumb to the comfortable. But the cost of being treated as inconsequential is too high for me.

    Since finding your site, I hit it everyday. What an inspiration you are! I mentioned I'm older and I've noticed the selections off-the-rack seem to be boiling down to Country Western Singer, LPGA or Mother of the Bride. It's getting harder and harder to find stuff I like. Thanks to you I'm dusting off my sewing machine.

  11. I dress for myself, but also for respect of those around me. Think about this: a group of young people were taken to see the President of the US. One young lady wore flip flops. There was a newspaper article that her mother was horrified by the flip flops, and while not horrified, it was definitely disrespectful. If I go to church, I want to show respect for the situation. If I go to a hardware store, I will probably not change out of my paint spattered junk clothes. A library requires better than those paint spatters.

    It all revolves around respect. Not honor.

  12. Today being Easter and your recent post about wealth as well as this one reminded me of being at college (at that rich-kid school) and skipping Easter Sunday at church because I couldn't afford to buy a new dress for Easter like everyone else. So yeah, that's where dressing for others turned out not to be such a good thing.

    On the other hand, I work in a service profession and I have seen how appropriate workplace clothing puts the customer at ease. I'm not suggesting rules for neckties/pantyhose/facial hair/makeup; I'm just saying that it helps to wear clothes that fit correctly, are reasonably modest, and clean. For this reason, I will stretch my budget for new work clothes (or fabric) when I feel like my current wardrobe is looking worn or isn't fitting well.


  13. Yes, I love that comment! It made me remember that dressing well used to be considered an important part of social etiquette; just one of many facets of etiquette that have all but dissappeared from our culture.

    Etiquette books began including chapters on the importance of dress for both men and women at the turn of the last century. Even children learned in school that dressing well (and appropriately for different situations) was important as a family member AND being a member of a larger community.

    I really don't know why these "rules" of dress have gone out the window or who is to blame. I have seen dress codes relax more and more with schools, and if I wore a tank top and miniskirt to school in my day I would have been sent straight home!

  14. I agree about the respect vs. honor characterisation. I don't personally think it is in some way demeaning to a person's sense of self to show some respect: for others and for themselves. My biggest pet-peeve regarding current clothing trends is the sexualization of just about everything. From five year olds to fifty-five year olds. I am definitely neither prudish nor against all types of interesting personal expression. "Interesting" being the operative word there. Tacky sexualization of yourself isn't particularly interesting, nor is it very original. To me, it just points to a lack of respect for self and others. I think the same applies to blatant sloppiness in clothing (like wearing pajamas to a restaurant- which I saw yesterday, twice). I'm guessing that the young people who do this think they're being cute, but it certainly seems to speak volumes for their sense of self and their lack of respect for those around them. "You can take the time to get dressed to have a meal in this place, but I just can't be bothered. My time is too important for that."

    I say this as a person who wore a lot of highly non-traditional clothing as a young person. But I hope that my choices reflected more about me as an idividual than that I just didn't care about how I looked-- I think the thoughtful choice of unusual clothes showed some individuality, not disrespect for myself or those around me. To me there's a difference.

  15. Great topic, Peter! I agree with many of the posts already here. Our society is all about being relaxed and casual wherever we are. But that manner of dress and behavior can often be taken too far. We run errands in the same clothes we wear to clean the bathroom or mow the lawn. I often see people in the grocery store in fuzzy house slippers or going to the university library in torn shorts and flip flops. The way we dress is also reflected in our attitudes toward others. We treat everyone as if we were in our own homes rather than with common respect and decency we should extend to strangers in a public place. (And we carry our "homes" with us with our cell phones and ipods, but that's another topic.) We often aren't as polite as we could be, respectful to our bodies as we should be or even care about the overall atmosphere of the place we are in. Is it the relativism of the modern age? Are we so self-centered? I know that when I dress nicely (not dressed formally, but clean and stylish in my own way) my attitude toward myself and others is different. I wouldn't want someone else to dictate to me what I should wear, but I think we could all stand to think a bit more about what we wear when heading out the door.

  16. Not everyone cares about clothing. Perhaps the fact that they do or do not does send a message about who they are, but if they don't care why should anyone else? I could never get behind telling other people how to dress or decorate themselves, as long as it was not hateful (racist, homophobic, or sexist imagery for example).

    In response to public life and duty and all of that, I think it's important to consider the GROWTH of those communities and towns. Plenty of small towns still exist, but not everyone gets to know their neighbors anymore or maybe even lives long enough in one place to cultivate the necessary relationships with their small town.

    As a tattooed person, I would not be able to understand why I should cover them up in public, especially if it was just to soothe the sensibilities of someone who cannot handle anything that varies from the norm. I like diversity, even if it means having to see a too-short, butt-baring skirt every once in a while.

  17. This is an interesting topic. I wonder how much of one's opinion on it is shaped by where one lives. I grew up just outside NYC and I always loved fashion. I also always bucked trends and dressed in my own style. Having spent the last decade or so in the casual Pacific Northwest, I became even less concerned with dressing to please other people and more comfortable just being myself. Casual Fridays meant shorts where I worked. I didn't turn into a slob (no dirt, no rips, no inappropriate skin), but I was okay just being me and not worrying about social expectations or current trends.

    Two years ago I moved to a more conservative area where books (people) are judged by their covers. And it's not subtle either. I've been snubbed in public, had people look me up and down, head to toe, then make a face, and even been followed by store security in the supermarket. My husband is required to wear a suit and tie for his job. When he's dressed for work, he gets treated with respect. But when he reverts back to his comfy jeans, he gets similar reactions. It angers me that no one bothers to find out what kind of person I am because they have already judged me by my style choices. Still, in order to keep my self-respect, I refuse to put on the "required uniform." I'm more interested in finding out who is genuinely interested in me as a person than having lots of people accept me because of some false 'packaging." So keep in mind that where you live may have a strong influence on what is considered appropriate dress.

  18. A-ha! Is absolutely right.

    Background to my sentiments: I was born in Washington, DC in 1961. This is when ladies wore hats and gloves and men wore suits, ties and hats downtown. So yes, the message that appropriate public dress is a civic duty of sorts is well ingrained into my psyche.

    Public dress is also a socio-economic message. For the longest time I refused to wear jeans in public because, again from my generation, I associated them with manual labor.

    Most importantly, I always try to dress in a clean and appropriate manner for the activity as a reflection so my own self-esteem and self-respect.

    I have no authority to tell anyone else what to wear (as much as I would love to see flip-flops banned from everywhere but pool side and the beach).

    I am in no way wealthy or privileged. Yet here in the SF bay area, I tend to be over dressed. Go figure.

    (The pictures are wonderful, by the way. Really brought a smile to my face.)

  19. typo alert! I meant to say "reflection of my".

    I am also adding a confession that I dress nicer/more conservatively and with more care as a conscious form of rebellion against the increasingly slob like trend.

    When I was younger and heavily into the arts - theater and playing in rock bands - I dressed outlandishly. You knew at a glance I was in entertainment.

    Now that tattoos and wild clothes are in, I am having my tattoo removed and dressing like an upper middle class business woman.

  20. The whole 'dressing for others' thing is a long and ongoing conversation in my house. I live in a seaside resort town where everyone is on holidays. Including the locals. People dress in board shorts, t-shirts (or barechest) and thongs (or barefeet). The whole reason I am doing a menswear SWAP for my partner is so that he will actually wear clothes with some style. I simply refuse to dress like a slob. One of your commenters has mentioned honouring yourself and I wholeheartedly agree. The old farmers around here still dress to go to town and it's a principle I adhere to as well. When I was young, people complained about punks and the way they dressed. At least they bothered to think about it. These days, in my community, people don't care. Whilst I don't think poor dressing means we are all doomed, I do think that when we don't care about the way we look, we stop caring about the way we interact with the world at large. The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is from Queensland, a place where everyone is on permanent holiday and dressed for the beach. Can you imagine what would happen if he chose not to dress like a leader of a country when he was visiting with say, Barack Obama? I have travelled a great deal over the years (I used to work in the film and television industry). When filming in say, a Muslim country, it was important to dress appropriately. That doesn't mean 'wearing a uniform' but it does mean respecting the culture of the people you are with. That, I believe, is the thing we have lost sight of. I believe there is a place in the middle where you can still dress to please yourself and, at the same time, dress to respect your community, thereby honouring both yourself and others. Thank you again, Peter, for another really interesting discussion. I know I will think about this all day.

  21. It's interesting that you mentioned dressing up for Easter as I do celebrate Easter and was thinking about this in church today (that's right, I was looking at what everyone was wearing instead of listening to the sermon).

    My contention has always been that God does not have a dress code and if you want to go to church or synagogue or temple or whatever, you need to show up clothed. Period. Perhaps in a way that shows respect for a specific culture when that's an issue, as Carol mentions, but just clothed.

    Not everyone felt that way, as evidenced by the LOOKS I got from some people viewing my outfit (v-neck top, cardigan, denim skirt, printed Keds), which was definitely casual, but not revealing or disrespectful. And most of those people aren't regular members of the church and don't know me.

    I can see the argument for respect in a house of worship and presenting your best self before your god(s), but I also get incensed by the mere suggestion that I should HAVE to dress a certain way for church. As long as I am not revealing my pink bits, then why would God care? Should we not welcome everyone who shows up to a place of worship, regardless of what they are wearing?

    Of course, none of this reflection stops me from wishing other people would rethink their garb sometimes, and nothing except a fire would make me leave the house in my pajamas. So I guess I've set my base level of what I will wear in public and refuse to go below that.

  22. Hmmmm. very good topic! I hate to be told what to do and also would hate for a universal dress code but at the same time I abhor seeing whole famiilies in the grocery store in their freakin pajamas! No, I think we can all show up for the day a little better than that.
    I am all for casual and that is certainly the mode of dress here in my hometown. However, I get simple bored with how people dress, it is just always the same ole look! Jeans, and sweatshirts, and lots of those UGHS. Yes, they are called that or a reason cuz one look and "ugh".
    I certainly would like it if more people would dress for the occassion and situation. I also think that regardless of how shallow it may seem, how one is dressed will draw a certain response generally speaking. In professional type situations I wish to be taken seriously and so dress accordingly.
    I think people tend to just get lazy and fall into ruts. I say find your look and express yourself.

  23. This is a really interesting topic.

    I have two takes on it:

    1. Two of my friends invited me and my husband out for dinner some time ago to a 'cheap eats' restaurant. We ended up not being able to go, as my husband was ill, but we saw the couple the next tuesday night. They told me they were kind of glad it fell through, as they were felt that I might be too 'fancy' for the restaurant, as I hardly ever wear jeans and they most often see me in a dress or a skirt. I do love dressing in skirts/dresses etc, but don't feel as though it should preclude me from certain restaurants or venues.

    2. I am a feminist researcher specialising in sexual violence against women. I work as a researcher for a state police service. One of my ways of being able to influence police members is to be seen as someone to be taken seriously. An element of this is the way I dress. If I turned up to work in a skirt that was mid-thigh (I saw an image on the Sartarolist of a woman at work in a skirt mid-thigh length who was supposedly an accountant), there is no way that I would be seen as someone who had credibility. I don't dress in suits, but I certainly do keep in mind that I am a young woman working in a hierarchical, predominantly male organisation.

    So - I think it is very important to dress with a mind to who you will be interacting with, or who you are 'on show' to. But - in saying that, I do often wear a singlet and shorts at home.

  24. I just wanted to chime in and say how much I've loved loved loved these recent posts on clothing and culture! I'm still articulating my own thoughts on the matter, but it's so exciting to follow this discussion.

    My initial sentiments echo Rachel's -- we all exist in various communities that may or may not overlap (work/social circles/home) and so of course our clothing adapts (or perhaps should), just as the way our (verbal and body) language does in different environments. I'm a young teacher in the university environment, and I can't walk into the classroom wearing the same exact thing as my students and expect them to take me as seriously as their emeritus professor.

    But there should always be agency, individuality. It's important for me to exercise what I consider good taste (you'll never find me bending over to reveal a hot pink thong, for example), but I don't feel it's my place to demand that of others.

  25. Oh goodness this is a tough one. Your reaction to the dress of the younger people above reminded me of how Masheka and I felt when we were in the Yucatan pennisula of Mexico (not Cancun but farther south and inland)--we did a little research before we went about general style of dress. Generally speaking, the men in the Yucatan don't wear shorts (we did see a few shorts-wearers, but hardly any). Long pants or jeans and button-front shirts or T-shirts--often with hats--seemed to be the general style. And women don't wear very skimpy clothes--we didn't see mini-skirts, etc.

    Well, except on the tourists. We saw many American and European tourists wandering around main streets (not even beaches) in bikinis, short shorts, minis, with no shirts, in big glittery sombreros... and while we are certainly not prudes, we couldn't help thinking, "how gauche!"

    We obviously weren't trying (as if we could) to blend into the local population, but we wanted to try to be relatively respectful of local dress code mores, if that makes sense. So Masheka sweated it out in long pants and I mostly wore knee-length skirts.

    Then again, when I was in high school, and dressing full-out punk rock, my friends and I took great pleasure and had lots of fun offending people with our style of dress. The more horrified the stares, the better! So I suppose for me part of the question is--it depends on who is offended, and why! When a guest in someone else's home or country, it's good to dress accordingly. But when out enjoying oneself in one's own locale, well... maybe who cares what other people think?

  26. America is going down the tube in a T-shirt! There is a casualization in America's dress that is affecting our work ethic, ability to hold down a stable job, and personal and moral responsibility in life.

    With so much talk about the first impressions we send to others through our dress, the first impression is truly on us. Because the way that we dress affects the way we think, feel, act, and how others respond to us, it is worth the time to send positive messages to ourselves about our confidence and capability.


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