When is the last time you saw someone dressed? I mean really dressed? Most people (beyond the set of Downton Abby) don’t dress for dinner these days. Certainly, by the looks of things, no one dresses to go into town either. A hat and pair of seasonally appropriate gloves were once practically a requirement for trolling the department stores. Lunching outside the home involved outfitting oneself with care and precision. But time passes and with it goes formality. Dining outside one’s home is no longer an occasion, dining at home is. Traveling, sightseeing or shopping is done with enough frequency to no longer fuss over appearance. Is there something a wee bit unsettling about sitting in a crush velvet Broadway seat next to someone in flip-flops and a tank top? A tad, but it’s really the close proximity to their big gulp slurpie that rankles the nerves. (Will that infernal plastic straw squeak ever end? Are they really going to play with the ice throughout the entire show? Is that neon infused corn syrup abomination going to land in my lap?)
When others treat an occasion with all the frivolity of hanging out in their own background, it tends to dilute the experience a bit. But you will probably still enjoy the show or even dinner if you keep your eyes straight ahead. But what of an occasion at which one must mingle and therefore move one’s eyes? What if our (and practically every society’s) traditions encourage a certain style of dress? What if it is in fact guests that help make an event an occasion?
At any number of weddings this summer, guests have taken it upon themselves to draw focus from the marrying couple. They will do this by over or underdressing, or by wearing white. These are not guests who have dressed in compliance with invitation instructions (i.e., it’s a white wedding for all! beach attire requested! black tie only!) these are guests who a) are not adept at social cues b) have nothing else to wear or c) the airline lost their luggage. (A word about white: even if the bride is not wearing white, even if there is no bride but instead two grooms, it is not a good idea for guests to wear white. Rational or not, other guests will be focused on the woman in white versus the marrying couple.)
Of course these slip-ups are not just reserved for the start of married life, but apply to the end of life as well. While there really is no one from whom to steal focus at a funeral, it’s best to not wear white (unless your tradition suggests otherwise.) Wearing black is no longer required, but somber tones are best. Any flash (sequins, excessive jewelry, statement shoes) should really be avoided, in other words; tone it down. Like a wedding, all attendees are helping to set the tone. And unless the deceased played in the major leagues that tone should not include baseball caps.
Dressing is the only way we humans have of communicating in a blink of an eye and in a universal language. While there are those of us who may long for more formal everyday attire, in the end it’s simply a matter of taste. But attending a wedding or funeral is not about us; it’s how we support people who are important to us. Showing up to a funeral in a strapless white eyelet mini-dress is the equivalent of screaming; “I’m here!!!!” Whereas a navy knee-length shirtdress whispers to the bereaved; “I’m here.”