J. KARL MILLER: The true definitions of dressing up and down

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:09 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 14, 2011

At a recent breakfast meeting with my regular, evil, mean-spirited, right-wing Republican companions, the discussion turned to what we view as a general, across-the-board decline in the art of tasteful and appropriate dress.

Our respective ages (the youngest member is 65) naturally colored our mutually agreed-upon opinions. Nevertheless, though dinosaurs we may be, standards of propriety and common sense do not disappear with "dressing down" and "casual Fridays."


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Our chief grievance was directed toward inappropriate attire at events usually reserved for ceremonial and/or solemn observance, particularly, but not exclusively, by young people.

The appearance of "cool" notwithstanding, the donning of tank tops, jeans, cut-offs, baseball caps and flip-flops is not only unseemly dress for attending church, weddings and funerals, it is also an affront to those who would apply proper taste and decorum to those functions.

While a more lenient interpretation of dress codes has resulted in more casual attire for men and women, it does not mean "anything goes" or "come as you are."

For example, it seems to be rather commonplace in today's world to go out to dinner,  a movie, dancing or even bar-hopping in the same clothes worn to mow the yard, work on the family car, put up hay or slop the hogs.

If that is not the case, many people put a lot of thought and effort into achieving a tacky result.

Recalling my active duty military career, among the biggest shocks to a junior officer was the oft-painful discovery that informal dress is not a clean polo shirt and jeans, but a coat and tie.

As a battalion commander in the 1970s, I quickly learned that most lieutenants did not own a tie or have the foggiest idea how to make the knot required to wear one. It was, and remains, a valuable learning experience.

Perhaps it would be helpful to review what have been generally accepted dress codes that have served us well over the years.

The language has been modified somewhat, but formal still means tuxedo and black tie for men and long cocktail dresses or dressy evening separates for the ladies. White tie or ultra-formal is seldom specified but requires white tie, vest and tails for men and long gowns for women.

The attire commonly identified as "black tie optional" offers men the choice of the more formal tuxedo or a dark suit and tie; ladies' dress is the same as formal.

Semi-formal or "After Five" means dark suit and tie for men, cocktail or "little black dress" or a dressy suit for her. Business formal does not differ appreciably from semi-formal except that women may opt for more dressy suits, etc.

Most people who operate in the world of "black and white tie," formal, semi-formal and business formal are already well-versed in suitable dress for the occasion.

However, when "informal," "business casual," "dressy casual" and "casual" are specified, confusion is often the result. The most misunderstood may be informal wear — contrary to popular misconception, it is not "Larry the Cable Guy."

Taken to their common denominator, the terms usually mean a dress shirt and trousers for him, a dressy blouse and pants or a skirt for her. I won't dwell too heavily on a lady's choice of attire, as I find women to be far more aware and fashion- conscious than guys. After all, when did you last see a woman in both plaid and stripes?

Finally, casual means casual — but, within the limits of common sense and human dignity. I won't comment on styles currently popular in some circles — e.g. grunge, Goth, fashion popularized by Lady Gaga and Dennis Rodman, and trousers worn below the hips to showcase underwear. There will always be a need for horrible examples and circus clowns.

Proper casual dress can be jeans, shorts, T-shirts, tank tops, comfortable footwear — in short, any clothing that is clean, in reasonable state of repair (I recognize but don't understand the attraction of costly but ragged jeans) and inside the bounds of what reasonable people would consider decent exposure.

As a matter of personal preference, I would avoid camouflage except when stalking game, fishing, washing the car or watching war movies on TV. I readily admit to a certain parochialism, but I have never considered wearing camouflage BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) acceptable off-post.

Lastly, attire worn in public should be age-appropriate. Anyone over the age of 12 who is not a baseball catcher looks ridiculous with a baseball cap on backward. And, while I can be somewhat sympathetic to anyone attempting to maintain a youthful appearance, a balding male on the wrong side of 60 looks quite silly with a ponytail and an earring.

If I have stepped on anyone's toes, so be it. Still, I can only hope that many of you will view this with objectivity rather than hostility.

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Ellis Smith July 13, 2011 | 4:35 a.m.

Presenting this information is good, Karl, but when the chips are down what is far more important is the character of the man or woman wearing the clothing.

I think we can assume that one of MU's illustrious graduates, Ken Lay of Enron, was always appropriately (and expensively) dressed, whether during business hours or evenings and weekends. I'm sure Mrs. Lay was appropriately dressed as well.

[On the other hand this advice is coming from someone who spent much of his working life wearing blue jeans* (and big "blobby" shoes with steel toe and metatarsal protection) and who forgoes jeans today only when some situation requires "better" attire.]

*- Clothing was also worn above the waist.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 13, 2011 | 10:46 a.m.

The "attire" question is a huge reason I spend as much time on my farm as possible. So far, the oaks, corn, soybeans, deer and turkeys have made no complaints within my hearing about torn jeans, raggedy shorts, ball cap, and T-shirts that have seen their fair share of farm-fresh tomato juice and assorted squashed horseflies. Ties are anathema in such a place, thank goodness, and the critters would probably snicker from their hiding places if I wore such a thing. My farm neighbors already whisper about me more than I would like. My tractor would probably buck me off.

In times past, folks have told me that I "clean up good", but it's been a long while and their opinions may have changed.

(PS: Having said all that....Col. Miller is spot-on.)

(Report Comment)
Evelyn Dunn July 13, 2011 | 10:51 a.m.

This another fine article by Col.Miller. Unfortuately it seems to me our young people don't even know the rules presented here. I do believe that schools which have and enforce dress codes are better preparing the students for what the adult world should be. However there are some who see graduation as meaning "anything goes" since nobody tells them what's appropriate. I would take this topic a step farther and mention manners in general. Time was when a young man (or an old one) removed his hat when entering someone's house, even his own. Now we see hats on men even in a nice restaurant. Ladies used to wesr beach clothes at the pool, not at the grocery store. Girls' bras were hidden so the straps NEVER showed....even going so far as to have a slip with wide straps to hide what was underneath. Now the question is "what's a slip?" I guess I'm showing my age so I'll stop here.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders July 13, 2011 | 2:03 p.m.

I guess all of those lieutenants should've went to boot camp instead of OCS? We we're even tying full-Windsors when I was there.

As for your stepping on toes, it's more like you're tripping over your... well, lets just say you are making USMC officers look like loons, which as an enlisted man, brings back fond memories.

(Report Comment)
Jim Clayton July 13, 2011 | 5:19 p.m.

I agree with you Karl. When I was younger in the 1960's everyone wore a suit to church and women wore nice dresses from young kids,to teens and adults. I always liked that myself. When we went to school if you showed up in jeans or sneakers you were sent home. I work in retail and most of my life the dress code was nice shirt and tie for guys and nice slacks and nice dresses and blouses for girls no jeans or sneakers or you would be sent home. I thought it made for a good business image to relate to customers and represent the company. Until recently when we were brought over the new regime now has us wearing uniforms now consisting of black shirts and khacki pants. The same for women. I notice more and more retail chains are resorting to that now. I think a proper dress code makes a person look and feel better about themselves and how they relate to others. Like you I laugh at the balding guys this side of 60 with poney tail and earrings.

When I was in the military in the early 70's our dress uniformw was the dress khackies with matching tie or dress greens with Green jacket and pants and khacki shirt and tie army issued and web belt.
I really dislike seeing the sloppy way kids dress for school now and going to more formal events like church and even family gatherings on Sunday,after all, clothes do make the person. I wish I lived in your town. I'd love to be a part of your group.

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller July 13, 2011 | 7:49 p.m.

Mr Saunders--let me be the first to congratulate you and your boot camp comrades for your extraordinarily precocious sartorial achievement. Of which era do you speak? The "Army Wants to Join You" period or today's producing a "time out" chit to the drill instructor when the stress is too much?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 19, 2011 | 5:43 p.m.

I was doing some paperwork this afternoon and it dawned on me that Karl could also have made the case that poor dress selection (male and female) can, under certain circumstances, be physically dangerous.

Foreigners, whether on business or engaging in tourism, are strongly advised not to wear camouflage clothing in Colombia (South America). Neither side in that country's long internal struggle will find your fashion statement the least bit funny.

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