“Just come casual,” the hostess instructed. “It will be an informal evening, so just come casual.” Though I knew the familiar ungrammatical direction was a considerate gesture meant to put guests at their ease, I had my usual reaction: “What in the world will I wear?” Had my hostess simply said, “Come for dinner,” I would have known exactly what to wear, and I would have thought no more about it. But the words “Just come casual” predictably sent me into limbo.
In the first place, the hostess did not really mean “casual.” She did not intend for the guests to be so casual as to sport jeans and sweatshirts. Yet, on other hand, she did not want them to arrive in either black tie or in something just a shade under black in what has come into the vocabulary as “dinner attire.” No, what she had in mind by “casual” was that intangible combination of L.L. Bean, J. Crew, and Eddie Bauer, laced with a touch of Ralph Lauren.
“Casual” is a look that is not “old clothes” but is studiously low-key, fashion-conscious, and often expensive. Young people have an instinct for it. My daughters have an uncanny sixth sense of how to look casual. But I readily concede my ineptness in deciphering the mysteries of putting together Laura Ashley flowered romance, Ralph Lauren classy Americana, Saks polished flair, and L.L. Bean Maine woods utility. So unsuccessfully do I manage to appear determinedly casual that my husband claims that I end up looking stiff, uncomfortable, and not myself. I agree. All the more reason, I say, to take advantage of the privilege that surely comes with having passed age 45 — that is, of dressing as one pleases.
My trouble is that I am an arrested case. Having gone to high school in the late 1950s and college in the early 1960s, I am still fast-frozen between ’50s sweater sets and ’60s preppy crewnecks. I never made the swing into the bedraggled flower child look, followed by the layered look, followed by the over-sized baggy look, followed by the outdoorsy, all-cotton, camp-style look. That is not to say I don’t ever wear comfortable, easy clothes. I do — most of the time. I am devoted to such stand-bys as my old corduroy slacks and cotton crewneck sweater. My former favorite around-home outfit was a denim skirt, flannel shirt, knee socks, and Rockport shoes lined with orthotics designed for feet only one step this side of orthopedic surgery. If someone asks me my definition of casual clothes, the old denim skirt is what I have in mind — anything but fashionable. What I deem my casual clothes, my real casual clothes, are also my clothes hardly fit for public view. To me they mean either that I am set for work in the laundry room, in the kitchen, or at the desk — or that I am geared for a lazy old Saturday. Either way, these casual clothes have a purpose. But if I am going out where I ought to be presentable, I change my clothes. My conservative instincts have never allowed me to stray too far from the clothes with which I grew up. From the sweater-and-skirt staple the dress code, according to the occasion, steps up in fairly cut-and-dried progression to jacket and skirt, to dress, to cocktail dress, to long gown.
Our current “casual clothes” quandary reflects the muddy waters of what clothes generally are now supposed to be. How can one know what “coming casual” means if there are no longer any guidelines for how properly to match the clothes with the occasion? Without a gauge good taste becomes merely the wearer’s whim — in other words, not good taste but somebody’s taste.
Time was when a little girl went downtown with her mother, and mother unfailingly wore white gloves and a hat. They ate lunch in Ayres’ tearoom; mother ordered chicken velvet soup and a Persian nut sundae, and the little girl ordered finger sandwiches cut in triangles and an ice cream clown. The choice of fare never varied. Neither did the mother’s hat and gloves nor the little girl’s smocked dress tied in back with a sash.
“What to wear” was simply a question of knowing where one was going. The going-downtown outfit was also the Sunday school outfit, at least in our family. Protestant ladies were as bound — if not by church practice at least by good manners — as Catholic ladies to wear hats to church. Little girls wore patent leather shoes, little boys white shirts and trousers. Men wore suits.
Even as late as my high school and college days the dress code was in place. Although there were those leather-jacket, Elvis duck-tail greasers in our big public high school, they were carefully drummed out of the intricate and rigid social hierarchy. Girls would never have been caught dead in saddle shoes at school. We had to wear hose and flats. No one made us; we imposed that rigor on ourselves. No one told us, either, that we must wear the wonderful new invention of dyed-to-match sweaters and skirts. But we all did and I still think there has seldom been a cleaner, more classic look.
Most of us know well how clothes affect our frame of mind and our sense of well-being. Further, many women — including me — know all too well how dangerous clothes are. Without a moment’s notice, what began as a decent effort to whip up the wardrobe can careen across the line into an unseemly zest to acquire more and more garments. With a certain sense of guilt, I try to be on guard for this particular demon in myself. But I have friends who have no shame at all. One friend says her jubilation over new garb is merely woman’s yearning to look good for husband, for friends, and for the crowd. Another friend cheerfully explains away her enthusiasm for shopping in general by attributing it to an updated female nesting and seed-gathering instinct. Why fight nature, they ask?
Leaving aside the thorny issue of over-indulgence, an issue no doubt as old as Eve, it may be more productive to ask what is the good of a dress code?
What is the difference between an invitation to come to a picnic and another to come casual? Why is one invitation orderly and reassuring and the other disorderly and disconcerting?
A dress code, the unwritten law of modesty and decorum that everyone in a community knows just because he knows it, is a great freedom. It is liberating in the same way that any proper structure is a freedom; taking it for granted, one’s attention can move on to something else perhaps more important.
Not only is clothing our first link to manners and morals, hence to civilization, but it is also one of the most reliable and comforting components of order in our lives. Hanging on the same rack in the closet (if not disturbed by pillaging daughters), it remains right where we put it, familiar and all ours. First thing every morning we find the same slippers there beside the bed, conforming to the habit of their owner’s feet. The familiar bathrobe, too, reminds us that the world is a friendly place. The clothes, moreover, that we put on for the day in some way govern that day. According to the activity to which they are suited, they structure the day’s activities.
Clothes, furthermore, are a sign of respect to others. If one is invited to a picnic, then one is happy to oblige the hosts by showing up in something that fits the mood of the party. On the other hand, just to go casual when one is invited to dinner shortchanges the dignity of the hosts. After all, hospitality is an ancient virtue; it should be honored with a degree of reverence.
We were once invited to come for a Sunday evening supper and to “just come casual.” Since the hostess is a charming lady who I knew would make a special effort, I had a hunch that casual ought not to be casual. Hence, I wore my sweater and skirt variation; my husband wore a navy blazer. However, when we arrived, the host likewise had on a navy blazer, but the hostess wore slacks and a teenager’s sweatshirt with a sparkling emblem on the front. Yet, when she ushered us into the dining room, the table was laid with her best things. The supper turned out to be not some informal chowder but a full-blown dinner of beef filet, beautifully prepared, with a dessert of raspberry mousse. The men all sat at the table in identical navy blazers. Men at least observe some kind of dress code. But the women were in a hodgepodge of costumes, each one unworthy of the hostess and her elegant dinner.
Clothes respect time and place and person. They also serve as a badge of office — the young mother in turtleneck and loafers; the businessman in his pinstripe suit; the professor in his herringbone sport jacket; the priest in his clerics.
Yes, the priest in his clerics. I have the happy suspicion that more priests are giving up civilian clothes and returning, no doubt with relief, to their clerics. Surely this is a phenomenon we may well greet with joy. We may take this subtle movement as a small sign that in trying to be laymen, priests were not happy after all. This is the age of the layman, we hear. Yet wearing clerical garb is actually a sign of respect to laymen, a sign that the priest wishes to serve the faithful in a particular, consecrated way. Though I tried some years ago to tolerate the clerical use of laymen’s clothes, I gradually came to see the garb-switching as the most irritating disregard of the dignity of both the priestly and the lay states. Cross-dressing honors no one. In my admittedly hard-nosed view, a priest belongs in lay clothes only when he is working out in a sweatsuit. I can think of no occasion when suits and ties or even sport shirts are appropriate. In this world of scarce priests, the clergy ought in charity to show us who they are.
And if we would hope that priests in their dress would honor us, then we should return the favor by our appropriate attire in church. The Mass is not the occasion for just coming casual. If it is the highest place to which we go, then we should respect it with such emblems of respect as jackets, ties, skirts, and dresses. Our Christ does not come casual.
This column originally appeared in the October 1989 issue of Crisis Magazine.