The awkwardness of casual attire

The Guardian‘s Comment is free has a piece up responding to a campaign devoted to reassuring people that they can wear casual clothing to the opera. The author argues — correctly! — that formal dress can actually represent a more democratic ethos than the current tyrrany of casual. Formalwear may once have been the preserve of the leisure class, but it can make anyone look good regardless of their class background. Two remarks stood out to me as they pointed toward a connection between enforced casual and my theory of “cultural awkwardness”:

Another reason that a dress code is democratic in that you know in advance what you’re supposed to wear, rather than having to spend some time working out what might be acceptable, only to be condemned silently for misjudging an unwritten code when you arrive.


Cultural elitism is to be found in those places where there appear to be no rules, no obvious codes, but where the obscure knowledge needed to be involved is the preserve of a small group whose false claim to democracy is that they don’t wear a black tie.

The latter remark applies particularly well to the dystopian realms of “business casual,” “smart casual,” etc.

32 thoughts on “The awkwardness of casual attire

  1. Insisting on formality is all well and good for men — we who can buy a couple of suits & be good to go. But I’ve witnessed the silent coercive tyranny that formality can have on a woman’s wardrobe. E.g., my wife works for a company that has a super-formal event each year, where everybody is to treat it like the Oscars and dress to the nines. This means that everybody — mark that, all the women — will be scorned, not so silently, if they choose to wear the same expensive outfit they wore last year or even the year before that. NEW NEW NEW! Men, of course, can either rent a cheap tux or buy one and re-use. Being on a supremely fixed budget, and having to bear witness to triple-digit charges for formal wear every October or so, I’m aghast at this and consider it an undemocratic injustice.

  2. I don’t know. Brad’s comment is applicable to men as well. I had to attend a wedding in the summer because I was “part” of it. Given my ultra-casual lifestyle, this entailed having to buy a suit, shit, tie, belt, pants, shoes, pocket square–and get a haircut. For what was a “voluntary” donation of my time, these expenses quickly added up and I’m on a limited budget. I exited September getting second notices on utility bills I deferred so as to be able to afford this event. Unless the happy couple decides to divorce and I am invited to the proceedings, I can’t see my wearing those clothes again until someone dies. And I only have one old relative left who doesn’t look like she’s kicking off any time soon.

    It isn’t clear (and you get the same argument with school uniforms) how imposing an additional tax for participation on the less-well off and poor constitutes a progressive moment. “Hey poor person! Great that you want to come to the opera, but you can’t wear your oily coveralls. Go buy yourself a suit, a dress for your wife, and ultra-douchey junior suits for your kids–and then we’ll silently make fun of you because your suit is clearly from WalMart and your wife’s dress is polyester. Furthermore, because you never wear a suit, you are clearly uncomfortable–and it shows! Hah!” In other words, the solution is addressing the wrong problem. The issue isn’t the clothes, but that poor and even middle class people don’t have the social and cultural capital to properly conduct themselves at such events which are designed to exclude them anyway. Given that the likelihood is greater that a poor person *really* wants to be there for the performance while the wealthy person wants to be there because that’s what a culturally sophisticated wealthy person does–“I’m a patron of the arts! And, no!, I have no clue what is happening on stage! But I paid for that stage!”–this is a real tragedy.

  3. This was probably a poorly-conceived post — luckily I don’t get paid for this.

    I’m not hoping for a return to the full Downton Abbey clothing regime, certainly. I’m just kind of tired of the idea that being able to wear your jeans and t-shirt everywhere is some kind of awesome expression of freedom. I was picturing the opera looking more or less like the check-in line at the airport, which surely isn’t what anyone wants.

  4. It’s a good point that this argument really only applies to those aspiring to the upper middle class, i.e. those who can sort of afford formal wear, but maybe aren’t completely comfortable with it. Universal Clothing Provision now!

  5. And my comments aren’t a knock at people who enjoy dressing well and spending money on it. I’m one of those people. I have one suit, and it’s Armani.

  6. Leaving aside the article that I apparently extracted one oblique point from — how did we get to a position where, in an age of unparalleled abundance, 90% of people wear disposable shit every day? Everyone should be able to dress with dignity.

  7. Why is a corporate overlord infinitely more oppressive than a cultural superego that demands you wear clothing more expensive to the opera than most people make in a month for no good reason other than that the clothing is fancy and expensive? Perhaps the attraction to Old Navy is that for the cost of a single decent suit, you can outfit a family of four or five for a number of years.

    Oh: I thought of a use for my suit. I could wear it ironically on Halloween when I teach. If asked what I’m dressed up as, I say “Adam Kotsko.” In turn, Adam should wear a plaid shirt and old jeans or a hoodie and old jeans and say he’s dressed up as me.

  8. It’s a great system — the corporate overlords enslave Asian children so that you can buy cheap, shitty clothes, and the fact that people have access to such cheap shit makes up for stagnating wages!

  9. IN ANY CASE, the real point was the awkwardness of navigating vague standards!!! Yes, it sucks to have to buy a suit for a wedding, but it sucks in a different way for them to say it’s a “casual” wedding and you have no idea what they fucking mean.

  10. Where do we stand on the Halloween idea?

    Anyway, despite the “let’s all wear formal clothing” to the opera idea, we don’t get around the problem that people who habitually go to the opera can tell the difference between a $200 and a $2000 suit. The cheap suit still stands out as cheap, as inappropriate, as vulgar, as offensive, as out of place, and a marker of non-belonging. Why not go “whole hog” and show up in a shop coverall if that’s what feels good? (Similarly, the socialite is invited to watch–or better, do–the oilchange in their fancy suit or cocktail dress.) At least you can combat awkwardness with a claim to authenticity!

  11. Cheap clothing is a huge problem. And it exists to serve an ever-worsening addiction. I often wish that I hadn’t been so deeply inculcated to love shiny, pretty things. Ideologically, I totally agree with Craig: just get a nice durable pair of coveralls and wear them all over the place. The opera, wherever. I realize that this is the only way to make fashion more sustainable. But there’s something in me with an almost physical aversion to this. And I don’t think it’s the nobler part of my nature. I’ve often thought about doing something like the Uniform Project ( But at the end of the day, I fear that wearing the same, durable garment (even if it’s a cute little black dress) every single day would probably throw me into some sort of depression. The cultural tyranny of fancy, pretty, new, clean, tidy, shiny runs deep. I feel like placing the stress on *the dapper* makes it worse.

  12. Having gone to a private high school with a dress code but no uniforms, I can attest to the fact that it’s humiliating to think you’re dressing up – really going all out – only to have somebody point out that your clothes are obviously cheap. It’s humiliating enough to make you do things like claim you don’t like a piece of clothing your mom bought (with the best intentions, of course) simply because she didn’t buy it at the right store.

  13. One thing of which I am absolutely sure:
    A $200 suit that fits well will look better than a $2400 suit that fits badly. The next time you see someone looking sharp in a suit, chances are that person is wearing a mid-price suit that has been well-tailored (a process that generally is not that expensive).

  14. The cheap suit still stands out as cheap, as inappropriate, as vulgar, as offensive, as out of place, and a marker of non-belonging.

    This is ridiculous. I’ve been to the opera relatively frequently (though I’m not a regular) and while I can indeed pick out some people who aren’t dressed that well (and am, relative to others, not dressed that well), the people I can pick out don’t stand out as “offensive” or “vulgar” and I don’t take them to be out of place or not to belong. Nor has anyone ever made me feel that way at the opera, even when I’ve been dressed down.

  15. I think there’s a middleground here. Adam is right to point out the kind of false democracy of the casual. However, being formal at the opera really doesn’t require expense. As a music critic I go all the time, and simply wear shoes, dark jeans, and (usually) a plain shirt. Inexpensive and basically acceptable, it would seem at least. Perhaps operatic etiquette is a little different over here in London, but the stuffiness of eg Royal Opera House would suggest not – and even there I never get a sour look for my clothes.

    But, in any case, perhaps I’ve deviated from the core points about actually expensive formal wear versus expensive casual wear.

  16. It’s weird that the same people with absolutely no regard for the quality of the music have a laser-like focus on fabric quality, etc. I think it’s true that a garment that fits well is paramount — there are a lot of American businessmen who look like utter slobs swimming in their expensive suits.

    This was such a poor article to choose to make the point I wanted to make, since I actually know from experience that things like the opera are totally hospitable to the whole range of clothing one could plausibly wear to work at a white-collar job (i.e., clothing that’s not explicitly worn in situations where you’re planning on getting it dirty).

    Kind of a different point — I remember growing up that everyone was expected to dress up for church, including suits and ties, etc., and then suddenly, everyone seemingly woke up one fine morning and decided to go for casual. Did others have this experience growing up? It’s always mystified me, because we started from a position where one would react with horror to the thought of wearing jeans to church, and then within a very small span of time it suddenly seemed acceptable for the pastor himself to show up in a decent pair of jeans.

  17. Also complicating matters is that opera is one of the most overrated musical art forms in history, and supposed enjoyment of the opera tends to map most readily onto class aspirations than onto anything else.

  18. Ben, great anecdote; c.f., Matt’s.

    Stephen, the answer to your comment is in the comment itself: you can “get away” with laxer standards of dress because you can draw upon other sources of legitimacy; viz., that you are a professional music critic.

    Adam, yes: the opera isn’t about the opera and clothing isn’t about clothing, which is why programs to get “disadvantaged children” to participate in elite culture miss the point just as arguments about dress codes miss the point. This is amply demonstrated in Matt’s comment. I never went to church so I cannot identify with that experience, but I do remember that my father, a lawyer of moderate profile in Ottawa, suddenly switched from wearing suits every day to wearing more casual attire sometime in the early/mid-nineties. I’ve always been “casual,” so I had no conversion experience and I’ve fortunately managed to avoid ostensibly formal functions like graduations, weddings, funerals, and the like for the most part. I guess “dressing up” for me is wearing a pair of pants that isn’t ripped and hasn’t been worn since last washing. I can’t imagine (well, I can, but don’t understand) why anyone would live otherwise.

    Hill is correct that elite culture is aspirational–except for the small minority who are actually there because they like the art in question.

  19. Yeah, I wouldn’t go as far as to say opera is “bad”–it’s not. But it was basically the soap opera of it’s day, and by an accident of history emerged with the reputation of being the most rarified of the musical arts.

  20. Ben, great anecdote; c.f., Matt’s.

    Assholes exist, it’s true. I would never contest that. (I would point out that mostly one is not in a high school when at an opera, but wevs, I didn’t want to say that it’s impossible that someone would be a turd to a body at an opera.)

  21. Ben, it is great that you’ve managed to destroy the age-old system of social and cultural stratification with the power of anecdotes and vague “personal experience.” Might I suggest the following slogan: “No power, no stratification; just assholes!”?

  22. In my personal experience, Craig, you are a dick (whose counter-appeal to my anecdote is someone else’s anecdote). Show me where I deny that social and cultural stratification exists.

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