Imagining fallen neoclassical Victorians

I'm not quite sure how to respond to this, but because a section links this blog in general terms I thought it deserved a fairly serious link:

Has a civilization ever gone from business casual to morning coats? Not without being rebuilt from the ground up in ways too painful to contemplate. We're so far from that today that the concept of hearkening back to Victorian anything is pretty comical. We may as well speak of bringing back the Great Awakening or the good old days of Antiquity. It's not just because of the distance in time: Our culture of slovenliness, gracelessness and, well, just about everything, er, blogging is about is so antithetical to the starched-collar and class-conscious ethos of Victorianism that it is simply impossible to imagine our civilization looking or feeling so civilized -- or, of course, so stratified.
Imagining civilization is, I admit, one of my pastimes. I like to think that I'm trying to defend it to the best I can, and if defending it includes bringing as much of the good stuff back as possible, that's fine. The "Classical Values" theme is part satire, part reality, and if it's wistful reality, well, I've tried to express it along the lines of "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Except the curious part of the above link to this blog is that I found it in the context of a discussion with which I very much agree, and which Glenn Reynolds had linked. To back up, some cretinous slob walked onto the Senate floor wearing bedroom slippers and a Hawaiian shirt, and Ron Coleman was offended:

How far we have fallen (hat tip for that link to this fascinating blog; check out this, too). It is the Victorian in me, I know, but I am comfortable with that.

Not with this, though. It is contemptible, but entirely appropriate considering the contempt they have not only for each other, but the people they represent.

I couldn't agree more. I was offended to read about young people wearing thong sandals to work (and even to the White House), by casual attire worn by bloggers to a luncheon with a former president, by what I see as a deliberately orchestrated campaign against school dress codes, and more. (Why, I even confronted the issue of ill-dressed bloggers, and once jokingly suggested a blogger dress code.)

Don't read me wrong. I don't believe in telling other people what to do; only trying to remind them that personal appearance is an important aspect of Western civilization. Personally, there is no question that I'm often much more of a slob than a "dandy" around the house, although out of respect for others I try (and yes, sometimes fail) not to go out looking like a slob. I consider traditional business attire to be the modern Western equivalent of, say, the Roman toga -- something not lightly to be discarded. I say this even though I know I am a child of the 1960s, when what had long been considered civilized attire was thrown out like many other things that shouldn't have been thrown out. I'm not talking about styles changing with the times, either. Looking like a slob really does display contempt for other people. It's one thing for people who don't know any better, but those who do know better ought to realize that dumbing down appearances by looking like slobs only helps dumb down everything, and ultimately works against civilization.

Whether this makes me a Victorian, I don't know. Considering their neoclassicism, maybe. However, I'm not about to put on a toga and Roman sandals, or start wearing a Victorian frock coat and high-button shoes. Such details are styles, fashions and facets of the constantly changing face of civilization.

There is a difference between changing styles of civilized attire, though, and degrading attire itself to the point where it is barely attire, and no longer civilized. I'm not a fashionist, a dandy, or a fashionista, and I can't spell out the standard, but it's a "know it when you see it" sort of thing. Something about seeing an intelligent and well-educated looking man wearing a t-shirt exposing his armpits and flipflops exposing his smelly feet on an airplane is more than unpleasant. It is uncivilized, and there's a lot of it going around. I can't tell people what to do, but some of them clearly know better.

I'd hate to see it all lead to no one knowing any better.

UPDATE (07/27/07): A piece in today's Wall Street Journal focuses on the phenomenon of guests in fine hotels wandering about in bathroom attire: "After years of pushing spa mania, hotels are trying to prevent terry-cloth clad guests from wandering into lobbies, bars and weddings. Hannah Karp on the effort to get robes back into the backrooms".

Hotels that aren't vigilant risk alienating businesspeople and outside guests who come for power breakfasts or ladies' lunches, or anyone else who would prefer not to see glimpses of hairy bellies and cellulite. Gerry Hempel Davis was having afternoon tea with her grandson earlier this year at the Homestead, a luxury resort in Hot Springs, Va., when she spotted an "oversized male" traipsing through in flip-flops and a robe, revealing "two inches too many" of his bare legs. "Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but to me that is totally unacceptable -- it's atrocious," she says.
I don't know whether her concerns are "old-fashioned" but new is not necessarily better. New can be gross, and I think people have just as much right to complain as they would if the hotel allowed homeless men to sleep in the lobby.
"It's extremely tacky," says Ms. Spencer, 46, of Pennington N.J. "I don't know you; I don't want to see you in your bathrobe."
I wonder.

What kind of person would want strangers to see him in a bathrobe?

What bothers me about this is that it really comes down to common sense. There shouldn't be any need for hotels to have or enforce rules. But some people are truly clueless -- as if it never occurred to them that they are tacky. As clueless as some of the lamebrains who hold regular conversations during movies in theaters, or cruise down the highway in the left passing lane going 55 MPH. I've seen them, and I swear, some of them do not even realize they are rude. To me, that's the scariest aspect of this.

And, because one wants to tell people they're being rude, and employees are afraid to be confrontive (as well as fearful of lawsuits by the "aggrieved"), it is conceivable that hotels and theaters might eventually call for totally insane laws. I doubt this would take the form of the state making it a crime to wear a bathrobe in a bar or talk in the theater, but it would not surprise me to see a clamor for immunity for lawsuits filed by the socially clueless.

It's tragically preventable.

UPDATE: My thanks to Ron Coleman for the link and the compliment!

UPDATE: Ann Althouse writes about a young associate so clueless that he or she sent a text message to a senior associate asking him or her "Are bras required as part of the dress code?" I didn't mean to be facetious about the sex, but the article does not provide a clue. (I suppose if a male associate asked that question it might have been thought of as sexist, though.)

There's such a complete lack of common sense that I suppose it would be sexist to require women to wear bras and not men. How about pants? Can they be required for men, forbidden for women? And can skirts be required for women, forbidden for men? Or can one sex be allowed to wear what the other is not? There are serious people running around who think such rules involve matters of "fairness" -- with distinct legal implications!

Seriously, I often worry that the absence of common sense is becoming the dominant paradigm.

posted by Eric on 07.26.07 at 05:47 PM


Better honest respect from a man in a menorah thong, than barely concealed contempt from a man in formal wear.

Alan Kellogg   ·  July 26, 2007 6:42 PM

Yes, Alan, but so what? No one is suggesting the contrary.

Ron Coleman   ·  July 26, 2007 8:27 PM

Rather than summarizing your position as "the clothes make the man", or even "neatness counts", I think I will just say that often the man makes the clothes.

There is to me a clear symbolic or psychological connection between clothing and cooperation, between discipline of dress and discipline of self. A person who demands the right to dress differently than the way everyone else is accustomed, no matter what the particular custom dictates, is a person who also demands the right to act independently about things they should not.

Socrates   ·  July 26, 2007 9:46 PM

I have worn a uniform most of my working life, and it has made me notice what others wear and how I react to them, and they to me. Politics aside, a uniform, or a suit, or even a vest with a nametag on it, is designed to first and foremost put forth an image of professionalism, and should be worn correctly.

I think a lot of people have gotten away from the idea that there is a time to dress down, but that work, and many social occsioans, is not the appropriate time.

In the Arab world, those that wear the robes ensure that all their clothing is immaculately clean, even the workers wear darker clothes to hide dirt. Those that wear western clothes almost always wear at least a collored shirt and slacks if not a full suit in a social setting, it's a cultural atitude that is lacking among most Westerners now. (But bless those girls in their short skirts, no matter the country)

As for commentor 1, I agree that I'd prefer to be dealt with in a respectful manner no matter the dress code, but that appearance does make a first impression that can be a barrier to any further communication. I know some tattooed and pierced people who are amazingly polite and competent, but the first impression was still off-putting.

On the sidenote, people are sometimes surprised to find that a servicemember in uniform doesn't brethe through his mouth, can form complete sentences in proper grammar, and doesn't curse with every other word.

Eric, Victorians may have been natty dressers, but in high summer, I am glad for my shorts and sandals.

SFC SKI   ·  July 27, 2007 8:04 AM

Alan, as a practical matter, I'm curious about why I would want "honest respect from a man in a menorah thong" or why I would worry about "concealed contempt from a man in formal wear" because if they are strangers walking around in a hotel lobby or something, I won't meet them, and I do not care about their inner thoughts -- nor do I want to know them. It might occur to me that the man wearing the menorah thong is clueless, and incapable of honestly respecting anyone, for otherwise why would he go about like that? And what's with the thong? Why not go about totally nude? (Whether he respects me inwardly is really a separate matter from his outward appearance, which would appear to denote disrespect. But I don't want to know or care.)

And sure, the guy in the formal outfit might be a crook or even a murderer, but I don't want to know him either. (I guess if I read about his indictment I'd at least have to thank him for not making me queasy while he was in the lobby, though.)

Ron thanks for visiting.

Loren it is symbolic. (It's a bit like shaving, or cutting the lawn -- things I really and truly hate, but which I feel have to be done.)

SFC SKI, I'm with you on the Victorian attire, but I'm not going to wear shorts and sandals to a downtown bank unless I'm changing money in Bermuda.

BTW, Bermuda shorts (still considered to be business attire in Bermuda) were once banned on the Georgetown campus!

Eric Scheie   ·  July 27, 2007 8:37 AM

Having had to wear morning suits, cut-aways, tails, and tuxes as part of my work uniform, I can't say much good about them other than that they can look kind of snazzy in the right crowd. They're fine for occasions in which a limited range of mobility and functionality is acceptable, if not the point.

I think the real issue is appropriateness for the location/occasion.

I'm perfectly fine with total nudity at a nude beach (generous enough to realize that not all people have perfect bodies). But I don't like to see beach and resort wear in an office. Nor am I particularly thrilled by shorts and halter tops roaming around the Capitol. That's as weird as showing up at Sammy's BBQ in tails.

Many make a mistake in assuming that what they wear concerns themselves only. I'm happy for you if you're 'more comfortable' in your jammies, but you make me uncomfortable when you're walking up my street. And just because they make an item of clothing in your size doesn't mean you should actually wear it.

But as we're in a period of utter selfishness, I'm not surprised that people don't give a damn what others might think or feel. Consequences for our choices? You must be kidding!

John Burgess   ·  July 27, 2007 8:47 AM

Just eliminate the hotel swimming pool and 90% of this will get solved.

As long as hotels have swimming pools, beach wear will be appropriate.

Personally I'm willing to put up with the 90% uglies for a chance at a look at the 10% cuties. YMMV.

In general except for a few hold outs elegance is giving way to convenience. It started 40 years ago. I was a ring leader. Electronic technicians were supposed to come to work in white shirts and nice pants. Which often got ruined. I started wearing jeans and work shirts - except on Fridays when we went out for lunch. It has been down hill from there. I'm glad.

The fact that it has spread to all classes is good. Now you can't tell the generals from the privates. Most excellent.

If you don't want to see "undressed" people in your restaurant don't eat in hotels.

OTOH another crusade is always good. Gives people something to be hysterical about. You know there might be big profit in a "Devil of the Week Club".

I don't give a damn about what other people wear. If mine eyes had offended me I would be obliged to pluck them out.

M. Simon   ·  July 27, 2007 4:09 PM

I'm reminded of a movie on this subject with Marilyn Monroe and a few other hotties. How to Marry a Millionaire" I think. The ladies were trying to snag a rich guy. She fell for a guy who didn't dress up. The other girls fell for the fancy dressers. The fancy dressers turned out to be male gold diggers. The guy who dressed down was the owner of the hotel the girls were staying at.

Well it was only a movie.

M. Simon   ·  July 27, 2007 4:22 PM

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