Welcome to a New Year and a new volume of Etiquetteer! With much of North America shivering in a post-bombogenesis dystopia, it's Perfectly Proper to start the New Year with a query from an Australian reader about inappropriate questions about clothes:
I tend to be more formally dressed than my compatriots (Aussies): where they wear shorts, I wear trousers; where they wear a jacket, I wear a jacket and tie, etc. As such I often have people asking (kindly enough) what I'm doing wearing a blazer (or what-not) to church or dinner, or wherever.
Would you please advise an answer that is both polite and brief, and not too po-faced?
First, thank you for your use of po-faced, an underused expression that ought to make a comeback.
"You can never go wrong with a classic" as the old saying goes, and in this case, the classic is "Oh, I'm going on to something else later." The implication is that the later function requires a different dress code. Whether you actually have something later on is a matter for you and your conscience to decide. Think of this as another version of Bunburying.
Etiquetteer vividly remembers an occasion from the early 1990s when a professional gentleman had to show up at a cocktail party in a white tie because he was required to attend some Ferociously Formal Function immediately afterward. Perfectly Proper for him to do so, but he made it the leitmotif of his conversation during the entire party. It's one thing to answer a question, but another to call attention to the obvious.
Another option is simply to dismiss the importance of what you're wearing, such as "Oh, I guess I wasn't paying attention" or "I always wear something like this." You must be very careful not to come off as Gloria Grahame in It's a Wonderful Life, who famously said "What, this old thing? Why I only wear it when I don't care how I look!"
And it will help you to become adept at changing the subject to something more appropriate. "When I was dressing I was thinking about [Insert Engaging Topic Here]" and then hold forth.
Etiquetteer is particularly concerned to learn that people are questioning what you wear to church. Etiquetteer was raised on the concept of Sunday Best Clothes. While the Deity of One's Choice would not shun someone based on their clothes or cleanliness, respect for the Deity and for the act of public worship is shown by presenting a clean, tidy, and properly-dressed self in one's place of worship.
But Etiquetteer wants to ask why you find it necessary to dress one cut above what everyone else is wearing. If it involves a sense of being better than other people, you're in danger. There's a creative tension between wanting to stand up for proper dress and also standing out for looking overdressed. Gentlemen like us run the risk of appearing as Insufferable Snobs or the monomaniacal Lady Eleonore Rochcliffe in Hawthorne's "Lady Eleonore's Mantle," one of his Legends of the Province House. "I wrapped myself in PRIDE as in a MANTLE and scorned the sympathies of nature."* This is best counteracted by wearing one's clothes with a modest, matter-of-fact air rather than preening or bridling or showing off, no matter what one has chosen to wear.
Believe it or not, the best example of getting comfortable with one's look comes from a gay novel of the late 1970s, Splendora , by Edward Swift. Miss Jessie, the feminine alter ego of protagonist Timothy John, becomes the dominant of their two personalities. "He learned to dress her so she could blend into most any crowd and still be noticed" at first. But Miss Jessie's gal pal Magnolia cautions her "Ever' now and then you ought to let yourself go more than you do. Don't try to be so made up all the time. Let your hair down once in awhile and it'll be a breather for you."**
Timothy John surprised Magnolia one afternoon in a New Orleans bar, "wearing Miss Jessie's hairstyle and tight-legged jeans together with a camisole top flaring out around his waist, a string of pearls, and silver lamé heels," along with an attitude of nonchalance. "Magnolia took one look. It was all she needed. 'You don't seem like a cartoon so much no more, honey,' she said. 'You been taking lessons from the right person is all I can say, and there ain't nothing left for me to do but pronounce you "graduated with honors."'"
Etiquetteer wearies of people who believe that dressing up, or even having to make any effort at all to look respectable, is too much trouble and to be avoided. They lack a sense of Occasion and Appropriateness. A quiet example needs to be set for them, and Etiquetteer commends you for continuing to do so.
*Poor thing then dies of smallpox.
**But, let Etiquetteer hasten to add, when the dress code allows! Relaxation and Perfect Propriety are not mutually exclusive.