Once upon a summer day Etiquetteer observed (discreetly - it's not polite to stare) a family of four on the subway during the morning rush hour. The father wore a khaki-colored twill suit with a shirt and necktie; the mother, a two-piece navy suit with simple silk blouse, unobtrusive hose, and appropriate flat shoes (read: not athletic shoes). Their little girl, who must have been four or five, had on a clean and simple playdress. Etiquetteer can't really remember what their infant wore in his or her stroller, alas. And the thought suddenly came to Etiquetteer that, only a generation ago, that young family wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. Now, they're considered "all dressed up."
Don't fret! Etiquetteer is not about to make everyone climb back into layers and layers of clothing during the long hot summer. (Though it is interesting to observe how many people, especially ladies, carry sweaters with them in summer because of the arctic air-conditioning of so many public buildings.) Etiquetteer always remembers the words of Ellen Maury Slayden, who wrote in her diary August 3, 1914: "Last Friday the mercury went to 106 degrees ... When I was married [in 1883], returning to Texas early in September, I wore a suit of golden brown camel's hair buttoned up to my chin and finished with a stiff linen collar. I wonder I didn't go mad and run amuck."*
Etiquetteer certainly doesn't want anyone going mad and running amuck, but Etiquetteer does wish more people would consider how they present themselves with today's layers. How much skin is too much? When does "casual" turn into "sloppy?" The question of how much exposure is too much is a legitimate question, one that American tourists abroad have to take into account when visiting churches. During the summer, especially, there's such a temptation to fling on a T-shirt and pair of shorts with a pair of flip flops without caring what impression it makes. The impression it makes in churches overseas is one of Flagrant Disrespect, and tourists will be prohibited if they expose too much of their persons.
That said, Etiquetteer is at least glad that the trend for men is finally away from the Dreadful Knee-Eclipsing Cargo Shorts and more toward Crisp Tailored Shorts with a four- or six-inch hem. This has much less to do with showing more leg than it does with the fact that no matter how one took care of cargo shorts, they never looked pressed.
Ladies with long hair, too, are so tempted with the quick convenience of a scrunchie, not realizing or caring that the backs of their heads may look like cow patties garnished with straw.
So, what are Etiquetteer's guidelines for Perfect Propriety in Summer?
- Prepare for perspiration. Aside from your usual toiletries, talcum powder makes this more endurable, and preserves the appearance of you and your clothes for longer in the day.
- Your summer clothes should show no rips or tears, spots or stains. Favorite clothes that have decayed to rags Etiquetteer will permit only at the beach.** And clothes that have been fashionably cut into rags, such as T-shirts sliced into fringe and beaded, are never Perfectly Proper.
- For the most part, your body and your undergarments (if any; don't call attention to their presence or absence) should not be visible between neckline and hemline. There's a greater risk for what is vulgarly termed "plumber's crack" during the summer; guard against this! You don't want to hear someone break into Blue Moon behind your back. The shirt you choose, whether T-shirt, polo, or buttondown, should be able to tuck securely into your trousers - whether you tuck it or not. (You should tuck it.) Ladies have a bit more leeway with halter tops and such like, of course, but bikini tops are a big no-no in the city.
- Etiquetteer doesn't find tank tops or cami tops Perfectly Proper for town and city wear. Certainly they make an impression, but is it the one you want to make? Take a long honest look in the mirror.
- If there are belt loops, wear a belt.
- Linen remains a favored summer fabric. Yes, it wrinkles like the very Devil, but keep ironing. Nothing makes such a beautiful impression as a crisp white linen ensemble.
While the Official Start of the Summer Season on Memorial Day is not yet here, it never hurts to Start Preparing Early. Etiquetteer hopes that you'll enjoy contemplating the Joys of Summer - and what to wear to enjoy them - in the intervening weeks.
*From Washington Wife, Journal of Ellen Maury Slayden from 1897 - 1919.
**Indeed, Etiquetteer's very favorite old panama sustained a gash down the front of the crown, so it's only fit for the beach. But it feels like an old friend coming to visit when Etiquetteer puts it on.