Sunday, January 28, 2018

Etiquette and Seasonal Standards

The Prime Minister of Great Britain, who had been unilaterally escalating formality by wearing hats all summer, shows up dressed in silk with pearls and high heels. She is quoted as having refused to participate in “a lowering of standards.”– Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners 
When temperatures go up, fashion decorum goes out the window...

Now that “White Shoe Season” is closing (after today, offenders should expect no mercy), let us review the fashion lessons of this past summer. This year's two big fashion stories are, in Miss Manners’ authoritative opinion: 

A. The Prime Minister of Canada suggests that heads of government attending the 14th economic summit conference in Toronto dress casually.
The Prime Minister of Great Britain, who had been unilaterally escalating formality by wearing hats all summer, shows up dressed in silk with pearls and high heels. She is quoted as having refused to participate in “a lowering of standards.” 
The Prime Minister of Canada wears a suit. 
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B. A Washington messenger is barred from entering the Department of Justice while wearing a T-shirt referring to the then-Chief Executive of that establishment as a pig. He responds by:
1. Unsuccessfully arguing the right of free speech. 
2. Unsuccessfully offering to remove the T-shirt in return for access to the building, presumably shirtless. 
3. Successfully arranging to have an acceptably dressed replacement sent from the messenger service in time to deliver the goods as promised.
4. Delivering his problem to the American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully argues his right of free speech. The Department of Justice, charged with demonstrating that it “obviously doesn't understand what the First Amendment is all about,” reverses its ruling after talk of the ACLU's filing a lawsuit. 
Now, what do these two stories teach us? Quite a bit about politics, notably that it makes an awful lot of difference who is doing the talking. Also that anyone hoping to maintain a higher standard than the society generally recognizes has to be prepared to lend practical assistance. If the Department of Justice, like certain restaurants and clubs, kept articles of “proper attire” on hand to lend those whom it deemed improperly dressed, solution 2. might have worked, and there might not have been a need to escalate to 4. The etiquette angle of all this is, naturally, more subtle. 

High symbolism, and some of the low kind as well, is involved. Social symbolism is not something in which modern people are skilled, and summer heat seems to rob them of any dexterity they might have. Each year, a number of otherwise relatively civilized gentlemen can be counted upon to raise a battle cry against the tyranny of the necktie. The more adventurous even suggest a fullscale clothing revolution, so that each man can express his true self. Miss Manners hopes sensible people can see the fallacy here. Clothing does express individual taste, but only within the context of the community. One's identity involves not only the contents of the particular heart or mind, but the age, gender, era, nationality and particular activity in which one happens to be engaged. To choose clothing that violates those requirements is to broadcast that one is in conflict with them. 

When the British Prime Minister refused to don clothes appropriate to relaxation, she was refusing to pretend that the economic summit was an informal gathering of friends, rather than serious international business. Miss Manner is less ready to cheer on the messenger. Since T-shirts proclaim the wearer’s presumed sentiment, it seems reasonable to hold the wearer as accountable for them as if he were uttering the statements publicly aloud. In most situations, that would merely mean that the bearer should be prepared for counter-attacks by people expressing the right of free speech. The confinement of a necktie is nowhere near as risky in summertime as is offering one’s innermost views to the chance reactions of strangers. – Miss Manners, September 4, 1988

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia