What Does The Demise of Elegance Say About Us?

Lamenting the loss of semi-formality.

Posted Jan 24, 2019

Denim. It once belonged in rural America or was worn by factory workers who needed sturdy workwear. Until it became something else. 

Hosiery. Once considered attractive on women’s legs, it was also complemented by high quality fabrics, such as silk, wool, and satin. Until it disappeared altogether. Women who used to carry nail polish in their purses (to stop runs in their stockings) celebrated. And those who cursed pantyhose no doubt went out and got drunk.

Dress coats. They were long and mysterious on both men and women. Only when they were removed could you see the classy suits, dresses, and flowing fabrics underneath. Now you’re lucky if you can find them only at higher-end department stores, and even then, only online.

Dress shoes and pumps. Men once lined up to get their shoes shined on Friday nights, pampering one of their larger investments (it used to be you could tell a lot about a guy by his shoes) and women wore pumps — pointy or peep-toe — elongating the look of not only their legs, but complimenting whatever else they were wearing. Hats. Gloves. Today? We occasionally see them at weddings, but primarily on the wedding party itself before they change into flip-flops halfway through the reception.

Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

You may ask — what made me go on a rant?  Okay. I’ll admit it. A movie. Although I had heard about it all my life, I finally saw The Philadelphia Story on Turner Broadcasting. Flitting before me on the screen were perfectly fitted clothes, elegant accessories, and tailor made suits — things you would expect from 1940s Hollywood but seeing them now reminded me of a more elegant time. Even the dialogue was “dressed up,” with the actors using clever phrasing and words that made them sound as if they actually made it past 9th grade. I remember my mother dressing like that, and news anchors on all three major networks’ evening news sounding like that. Instead of making me happy that people looked, dressed, and sounded like that, all of this made me sad, as if I were mourning something. 

I’m sure even if you think me shallow-minded, I am somewhat redeemable. Truth be told, there are parts of me that have celebrated a degree of dressing down over the years. To those of you who think me insecure because I’m even talking about it, however? No worries. I won’t take it personally. No one can suppress my delight in window shopping at Barney’s of New York, seeing what a great buy I can find at Marshall’s, or searching eBay for a vintage dress coat and trying to throw together a “look.”

Perhaps I am lamenting the loss of semi-formality. Even when entertaining in one’s home—except for some ethnic groups that may have kept up a few traditions—going to someone’s house for dinner can mean potlucks with paper plates, plastic wine goblets and totally breakable flatware painted silver to make them look substantial. REAL china, silver, and crystal have been stored away, forgotten, or sold on eBay, with newer generations showing no interest in inheriting them. Dressing for dinner out appears to mean (perhaps) throwing a lumpy sweater over a pair of jeans ripped at the knee. And taking a flight somewhere means staring at the hairy legs of the shorts-wearing man seated next to me. I know. I sound jaded.

Is this the great “equalizing” Americans so adamantly defend? I never thought of any of it as a “class” thing anyway. Someone wearing their best can have thrown together an outfit from Target, and I’d never know the difference. These days I could just tell they cared enough to not wear their sweats. 

Dierdre Clemente, in her 2015 Time Magazine article titled Why and When Did Americans Begin To Dress So Casually? explains it this way: “Americans dress casual. Why? Because clothes are freedom—freedom to choose how we present ourselves to the world; freedom to blur the lines between man and woman, old and young, rich and poor. The rise of casual style directly undermined millennia-old rules that dictated noticeable luxury for the rich and functioning work clothes for the poor. Until a little more than a century ago, there were very few ways to disguise your social class. You wore it—literally—on your sleeve. Today, CEOs wear sandals to work and white suburban kids tweak their L.A. Raiders hat a little too far to the side. Compliments of global capitalism, the clothing market is flooded with options to mix-and-match to create a personal style.” She goes on to chronicle the timeline of how we evolved from dress-wearing, glove toting females and ends her piece with why she, personally, loves casual dressing. “I’ve devoted the past decade of my life trying to understand 'why' and 'when' we started dressing this way—and I’ve come to many conclusions. But for all the hours and articles, I’ve long known why I dress casual. It feels good.”

So I have to ask myself if dressing is really about how we feel or how we want to feel. Why do I love watching The Devil Wears Prada over and over again? Is it because of the twisted Cinderella story that follows Ann Hathaway’s descent into what her friends consider fashion purgatory? Or is it to see the elegantly dressed women in full makeup, Meryl Streep throwing her $1500 handbag on her assistant’s desk or Stanley Tucci acknowledging his protege’s newly minted look by saying, “I think our work is done here?” It’s all of that. No one can stop me from admiring beautifully dressed people. In my mind there is always something more I can achieve physically to make me feel better about how I look just as there are things I can do to improve my brain. They’re all connected.  

So how do we find that balance between “I’m not dressing to please anyone else, so go pound sand” and “how you dress reflects the kind of respect you have for yourself and others?”  StylishlyMe.com's Vanessa Rodriguez give us tips in how to dress but not overdo it in her article How to Dress Classy — 5 Basic Style Tips you Need to Know. She admits, “Classy styling is timeless. The navy shift dress and camel-colored pumps you buy today will still be wearable ten years from now. Buying one good pair of pearl stud earrings outweighs the 10 pairs of trendy statement earrings that will be passé a year after they are purchased. It is an elegant style that can be worn to work, Sunday brunch, a city shopping trip, or traveling the world.” She includes how to wear accessories, how overexposing yourself (bare midriffs, too-short skirts, and open cleavage) is not part of this equation—especially past the age of 25 — and how good fit and high quality fabrics are key, even if you have only a few very special outfits.

Thing is, dressing elegantly is like breaking out your best stuff when people come over for dinner.  It’s a statement about how you feel about yourself and at the same time, “treating” others to something you you took time and effort to put together. If food seems to look and taste better on those elegant Lenox dinner plates your mom gave you so long ago, then dressing to go shopping with a friend or to get on a plane isn’t that different. 

So I ask you: am I a hopeless throwback? Is it because I SAW people dress well in my youth that I am forever torn over how things have changed? Probably. But in the Richlyrooted.com post Recovering the Lost Art of Dressing Up, a blogger named Elsie, born in 1988, shares many of my sentiments. This sweet young thing has never lived in decade where people routinely dressed up for anything but a wedding. And she admits that when she enters restaurants and sees people dining in their tank tops, she feels like society has lost something. “I realize it probably makes me sound like a crotchety old lady to bemoan the decline of dress standards,” says Elsie.  “Yet the way we dress affects us every day of our lives, so isn’t this an important point to consider in an examined life? There are a lot of positive things that can happen when you start dressing nicer. But as I’ve thought about it, one key consequence stands out: respect. We get more respect from others when we dress well. Even more importantly, we learn an attitude of respect ourselves.”

So next time you see this platinum-haired accessorized old lady in her high-heeled boots with her skinny pants tucked into them topped by a tunic-length turtleneck poncho while singing jazz karaoke in a dive bar, know it was no accident that I was probably overdressed at the time. Having been an avid student of my always-dressed little mom and an old movie buff with a soft spot for beautifully outfitted people and catchy dialogue, I know I'll probably only see remnants of any of this on award presentation shows on TV. The only person I am representing, however, is me. And I take that seriously.