My apologies for the delayed publication of this post… I’d love to blame Technical Difficulties, but it really comes down to Operator Error.
Gone are the days where women or men had one outfit for Sunday Best, and another for the rest of the week. Now we have closets full of clothes, and people regularly complain that they don’t have what they need for the occasion at hand, whether that be a baby shower, or job interview.
One of my favorite books about fashion and style is The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish. I reread it regularly, and refer to it often. It is a book for anyone interested in the history of style and fashion in America, and the history of women in American society. In it, Linda Przybyszewski refers to a collected group of brilliant and determined academics as the Dress Doctors, who were “fashion influencers” long before the existence of social media. They believed in elevating everyday life by applying the principles of art and the occasions of dress. These multi-talented women found themselves relegated to the Home Economics departments of universities, and found a way to thrive and be taken seriously. “Home Ec” was an art, not merely a necessity. They preached that beauty can and should be found in the quotidian. After all, that’s where most of us live. The Dress Doctors considered dress to be:
one of our social duties for two reasons. First, because the world has to look at us whether it wants to or not. Second, because the world has work to do, and an inappropriately dressed individual can be distracting. These two reasons explain why “making the most of your looks is not vanity.” The effort “indicates proper self-regard and consideration of others.”
In The Lost Art of Dress, Ms. Przybyszewski outlines the Six Occasions of Dress for older children and adults. These included: (1) School, (2) Spectator Sports and Active Sports, (3) Street, Travel, or Work, (4) Housework, (5) Afternoon Affairs or Tea, (6) After-Five or Formal Evenings. From what I see on the streets today, categories 1-4 seem to have collapsed into one for many Americans, unless they work in an office with a dress code at a level above Business Casual. Category 5 has disappeared completely for most of America, unless you count happy hour. After-Five and Formal Evenings still hold a place, albeit for most of us, very rare.
I am not the only person who has noticed that in our current culture, for many, dressing for the occasion is dead. I am called into workplaces for employee training for exactly that reason. (Or because employees are taking their work wear cues from Hollywood and Pinterest.) I have witnessed church wedding attendees in cargo shorts, logo tees, and flip-flops. (The wedding party was in full length dresses and tuxedos, so no, the wedding was not casual.) Even beach weddings with flip-flops don’t usually go to the cargo shorts and logo tees extreme.
Many blogs and articles complain about the “casualization”of American dress, and give myriad reasons for the shift to “dressing down.” Everything from ignorance of propriety, laziness, lack of discipline, the obesity epidemic, and fast fashion have all been blamed for sweatpants culture. The “high” cost of clothing is my favorite… This excuse does not come from those in the industry. Cost cannot be the reason. We buy more clothing than ever, and still spend a lower percentage of our income on clothes than we did in the 1950’s, when (after looking at lots of photos) we were certainly better dressed! More than anything, I think it reflects the infantilization of our modern American society.
Since the 1960’s and the Youthquake, maturity has taken a beating. Our culture has been chasing youth, or the illusion of youth, for more than a generation. We don’t even grow-up anymore. We “adult”. What rubbish! There are privileges that come with maturity as well as responsibilities. Why not celebrate the privileges rather than cling to immaturity. There is nothing wrong with a youthful attitude (I think it’s a necessity), but dressing like a teenager usually comes across as childish rather than youthful. Previously, one of the privileges of maturity included what you could wear. Women in their 20’s were not seen as mature enough for the elegant styles designed for a woman in her 40’s. I remember looking into my mother’s closet as a girl, and wondering when I would be old enough to wear some of her beautiful things. (Cocktail pretties, and later, a stunning silver St. John knit gown!)
For those whose parents were busy chasing an extended adolescence, and missed out on the education of what to wear when, I have taken liberties with the Dress Doctor’s 6 Occasions for our modern age. Your wardrobe needs to fit your life, so if you never attend weddings or eat out at nice restaurants because that violates some deeply held principle, don’t worry about that category! Most funerals are not planned, and shopping is the last thing you need to be doing when grieving, or supporting those that are; please make sure you at least have something that fits the Solemn Occasion category…
School: At one time, elementary school children, high school students, and college students all had their own styles of dress. Now, university students can be seen at class in their pajamas, and many other students attend classes dressed for athletic competition, or they look ready to clean out the garage. School is the child’s equivalent of work, and students should be dressed for it. Not necessarily shirts and ties, but in comfortable, not ready-to-roll-in-the-dirt, clothes. (Or where I live: ready-to-go-hunting clothes.) Creating a distinction between school clothes and play clothes (as in previous generations) creates a structure that supports the business that study is. When I taught in a school with uniforms, I (and other teachers!) dreaded out-of-uniform days for the attitude shift in the children. There was less respect for others, and less concentration on schoolwork. When students dress for play, they demonstrate play behavior and manners from the first bell to the last.
Work: The same principle applies to adults and work. Unless you are a yoga instructor, or personal trainer, you don’t need to wear fitness gear all day long. I understand the appeal of athleisure, but by definition, work is not leisure, so save athleisure for non-office time. If you work from home, like I often do, and are caring for children or slipping in housework between business calls, dress in a manner that you will not find you embarrassed if a client or business associate drops by, and throw an apron over your clothes if you worry about stains. (I wear mine when having coffee because I am a mess.) Check your business dress code. If you need to make up your own, unless your job requires dirty physical labor, it is usually better to find yourself overdressed than underdressed.
Going to a game? Playing after work or on the weekend? Gardening or hitting the building supply store for work on that project? Great! Wear what works for your sport, hobby, or project. And think about where else you may choose to go. Please think twice before going to brunch after spinning at the gym. You don’t need to be marinating in your own juices for the next two hours, especially at a restaurant.
My husband and I take ballroom dance classes, so some of my leisure/play wear looks like what someone else might wear to a wedding. That fits my lifestyle, but maybe not yours. I keep a box of clothes to wear for yardwork and camping under my bed; they don’t need to take up my valuable closet real estate.
Festive: In festive occasions, I include events such as wedding or baby showers, dinners out for celebrations, casual or daytime weddings, and other similar affairs. Often these outfits are brighter in color, or have bolder patterns than work wear, but if your workplace is more casual, you may have pieces that cross over well. A brightly colored dress, or trousers with a cheerful blouse can usually fill in the gap, especially with some added sparkle. Leave your work tote or everyday bag at home. Try something smaller and less utilitarian.
Solemn: As I mentioned above, solemn occasions are not usually planned. A court date or jury duty, funerals, or other important appointments are less of a stress if you already have something appropriate to wear. My least favorite appointment is being called to help someone buy an outfit for a funeral, even if it is a privilege to help during a difficult time. If your work wear is conservative and neutral, you probably have what you need, but if most of your clothing is leisure wear, making sure you have a neutral trouser outfit with a subdued top, or a easy to throw on (not party) dress in your closet can be an emergency lifesaver. This is the time to leave the sparkle at home, but adding a bit of subtle sheen looks like you made an effort.
If you find you need to buy a new dress for a festive or solemn occasion, and they are rare in your world, please don’t spend a fortune on your outfit. Are you really going to wear it again? If not, look at renting, or check out the consignment stores in your area. The cost per wear on party outfits is a budget buster! Spend your money where you make your money, not on a party frock!
Special Event Wear
Other events are much dressier. Does your company have a holiday cocktail party every year? Or do you have formal occasions to attend? I used to have two dresses for the military ball we would attend each year. We moved every three years, so I would just alternate years. If anyone was bothered that I wore the same dress, that wasn’t my problem. Now I don’t have any, because our life doesn’t require gala wear. Buy for the life you live. If clubwear doesn’t fit your life, then leave it behind in the store, no matter how cute that little dress is… I have a few dresses I wear for ballroom dance events, and these can cross over for cocktail parties and other (exceedingly rare) events of that type. I am looking for a new dress to wear for my son’s wedding next fall, and am hoping to find one I love that I will be able to wear again.
What categories of dress do you need for your lifestyle? Did I leave out a category that is a must for you? Please let me know in the comments below; I love to hear from you!