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
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,
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 look up 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 present 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 favorite around-home outfit is 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 outfit of choice is usually some variation on
the old '50s-'60s sweater and skirt theme, now likely to be for me
some kind of skirt, blouse, and sweater. 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 all too 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 say.
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
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 freeing 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 recently were 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
Anne Husted Burleigh, a contributing editor to Crisis, writes from
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine. For subscriptions call 800-852-9962.