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The Age of Elegance

December 11, 2017

Typical women’s wear, circa 1953

My husband and I have been watching a BBC Masterpiece Mystery series (Grantchester) that is set in 1953.  The women are generally attired in flounced dresses and/or full length gowns (‘evening wear’); the men wear sharply pressed shirts under suit jackets and ties (or tuxedos for ‘fancy dress’ parties). Only last night, I commented to my husband how elegant they all looked, and lamented the fact that the ‘age of elegance seems to have passed us by.

I was born that year (1953). Growing up, my parents both attended and hosted social gatherings with friends (we were a ‘middle class’ family) where the women always ‘dressed up’ – most often in knee length ‘party frocks’, but occasionally in full length dresses (at Christmas and New Years) and the men wore their best suits, often with vests and always with a tie.  Weddings and high school proms (right through the early 70s) always called for full length ‘evening gowns’ for the women/girls and dress suits for the men/boys.  Even the youngest of girls wore pretty dresses with crinolines underneath, white gloves, and occasionally a fancy hat to Sunday School or church. Their mothers wore stockings, gloves, and hats with their dresses; men had ‘Sunday best’ suits and they always removed their (required) hats when entering the church (or any building, for that matter).


A photo from “Mad Men”

Working women (teachers, office workers, nurses, etc.) never wore slacks; men (unless working in a ‘skilled trade’) were always dressed in suits and ties (and if they removed their jackets while working in their solitary offices, they always put them back on when meeting with customers, clients, or managers). You only have to look at movies or TV shows about the era (or images from them) – like “Mad Men” – to see what I mean.

LeisureSuitsIt wasn’t until the late 1970s that ‘pantsuits’ became acceptable office attire for women (that often indecently short ‘mini skirts’ were allowed prior to that time, but not slacks, has always struck me as a bit odd), and men were ‘forgiven’ for not wearing a jacket or a tie at all times (unfortunately, the late 70s also brought about the age of the polyester ‘leisure suit’ for men).


Typical office wear today

Gradually, as the years passed, dress ‘codes’ (or the unspoken expectations regarding appropriate attire for those working in offices, schools, etc.) were relaxed and we now find both men and women wearing everything from pretty ‘day dresses’ (women) and three piece suits (men and women) to casual slacks and shirts (on both sexes) in just about every environment. It seems the only ones who really get ‘all dressed up’ these days (in evening gowns and tuxedos) are the fabulously wealthy – and then only when they attend awards galas or events hosted by other members of the ‘extremely rich and famous’ set. It’s sort of sad, if you ask me.

sharon_margoWhen I was young I loved getting ‘dressed up’ for church and friends’ birthday parties, or other special events. I couldn’t wait to be allowed to wear stockings (complete with garter belt), high heels, and lipstick. Putting on a full length gown for a wedding (or my high school prom) made me feel like a princess (I still love to wear them; at my niece’s wedding in 2008 [see photo, right], there were only three guests in full length dresses – myself, my mother, and my sister; at my son’s wedding in 2015, the bride’s grandmother and I were the only ones, other than the bride, who chose to wear long dresses).

DressForSuccessBookCover_80sEven at work, I resisted the trend towards wearing pants in the office (and later, in the classroom). I still remember the first time I decided not to wear stockings (‘pantyhose’ by that time) to work; it was the summer of 1983 or 84 and we were in the midst of a blisteringly hot heat wave and the classrooms were stifling. The (female) instructor who taught in the room next to me actually noticed my bare legs, and we got into a discussion about how we both believed that teachers (we taught at the local Community College) should dress to set an example for our students (magazines like ‘Working Woman’ and ‘Dress for Success’ [amazingly, written by a man] were very popular around that time). Then we looked around at our (all female) classes (we taught Office Administration specialties) and realized most were in cut off jeans, shorts and t-shirts – and laughed. Clearly, no one had been paying any attention! I started wearing pants to work shortly  thereafter (mostly because I often ended up on my hands and knees under desks, trying to repair computer connection issues – something you didn’t want to do in a dress). Slacks, a dress shirt with a vest or blazer became my ‘go to’ teaching attire for the remainder of my career.


A colleague and I, Convocation 1977

By the time the 21st century arrived, pretty much everyone I knew dressed very casually (with the exception of two male Business teachers who always wore dress shirts, dark pants, and ties to work every single day – bless them). If a female teacher appeared at the front of the classroom in a dress, some student would invariably ask, “What’s the occasion?” (Admittedly, it was usually an Awards or Convocation Day!) “Dressing down” on “Casual Fridays” (where ‘casual wear’ took on a whole new meaning – and not, in my opinion, an appropriate one) was far more conventional than “dressing up” for special events!


My parents ‘all dolled up’ for a nostalgia night at the museum (mid-1990s)

I don’t have much occasion for ‘dressing up’ these days. I suspect I will always don a full length ‘gown’ for weddings, and a respectful ‘day dress’ for funerals. During the summer, I nearly always put on a long sundress (‘maxidress’) after my shower at the end of a long, hot day in the garden (my mother always ‘dressed for dinner’; I take after her in many ways!), and I like nothing more than to put on something special (occasionally a dress, more often than not dressy pants and a nice top) when my husband takes me out to dinner (even if it’s just the local family restaurant).  There is something very special about getting ‘all dolled up’ (as my father used to call it) to go out – it’s demonstrates a combination of respect (for your host/hostess and/or venue), self-confidence, poise, and pride in your appearance. I wish we could bring it back into vogue, because elegance deserves to be recognized and celebrated – not relegated to the annals of nostalgia by those of us on … the other side of 55.

  1. December 18, 2017 9:50 am

    So very true. So much casual wear is inappropriate and unflattering. How sad that elegance and style have gone by the wayside.

    • December 18, 2017 4:21 pm

      Maybe, like so many other fashions, it will make a comeback!

  2. December 14, 2017 3:56 pm

    I’ve been saying the same thing for years now – looking elegant just doesn’t happen any more. I’m around the same age as you and I still find it a bit shocking that people wear such casual clothes to church weddings. I understand if the ceremony is outdoors in the summer, you may want to wear shorts but to a church ceremony? Nope. My parents taught me to dress up to go into the city and my dad about fainted when I was dressed in casual slacks to do so one day and this was in the late 70’s. Well, times surely have changed, but I sometimes do wonder if we haven’t lost a lot of respect for ourselves and others in the way we dress.

    • December 14, 2017 4:14 pm

      Oh my goodness! I remember getting all dressed up to take the bus into ‘the City’ with my mother when I was young. I also remember my Dad often saying, “You’re not going out dressed like THAT, are you?” during the late 70s (he disliked bellbottoms, jeans, and mini-skirts – pretty much my entire wardrobe during that era!) I’ve often been the only woman wearing a dress at wedding showers, corporate events, and parties. I love the special feeling you get when you were something lovely. People nowadays don’t know what they’re missing!!!

  3. December 12, 2017 9:21 am

    Interesting post, Margo, and one that I can relate to. My husband’s family always used to make fun of me for ‘dressing for dinner’ when I first came to the US, and wearing jeans was, for me, unthinkable. Forty years later, I don’t own a dress and my closet holds mostly jeans.

    • December 12, 2017 11:17 am

      I still love to put on a dress; it makes me feel ‘all grown up’ LOL! (Pantyhose on the other hand have been banned from my wardrobe!)

  4. Margy permalink
    December 11, 2017 7:43 pm

    Times sure have changed! I remember when girls couldn’t wear slacks to school!
    My husband wore a suit to work for the second half of his career – he went from working on the rigs to working in an office. Even casual Friday wasn’t nearly as casual then as it is now!

    • December 12, 2017 9:20 am

      During my last year of high school, I had to take a bus to a different school in the north end of the city. I would put slacks on under my dress to stand in the cold/snow and stuff them in my locker for the day; mini skirts weren’t an issue, but pants were. So strange. Now kids wear their darn pajamas to school!

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