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Seer or Sucker?
"The Straggler."


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John Derbyshire

EDITOR’S NOTE:
This article appears in the July 26, 2004, issue of National Review.

The New York Post Style section recently ran a piece about the dress guides that are printed on the invitations to society functions nowadays. Apparently such inscrutable directives as “Dress Festive,” “Summer Chic,” and “Creative Black Tie” are common, and even quite sophisticated New York partygoers are baffled by them. The Post does its best to help. Concerning “Dress Festive,” for example, they offer: “Do not . . . attempt anything with fruit . . . Male guests are best advised to cautiously play around with the color of their jackets, shirts, or pants . . .”

Speaking for myself, I have never attempted anything sartorial with fruit. If invited to “dress festive,” I should probably show up in a Hawaiian shirt, chinos, and plimsolls, which plainly is not what is intended.

These misunderstandings are one of the hazards of social life, and always have been. The young Noel Coward once arrived at a literary event in full evening dress, only to find everyone else in street clothes. According to Coward’s biographer: “He paused long enough for the assembled intelligentsia to take in the full effect, then said: ‘Now, I don’t want anybody to feel embarrassed.’” (In a masterly display of turning life into art, Coward’s short story “Bon Voyage” includes a scene in which an elderly nouveau-riche couple, the Teitelbaums, commit the same faux pas, but with less sang-froid.)

I think our own times are especially rich in opportunities for embarrassments of this kind. The confusion of those Manhattan partygoers is symptomatic. This is an age of sartorial flux. We have swept away the old rules, but not yet settled decisively on new ones. We wear a suit for a job interview, get the job, then find that it’s a jeans-and-sneakers office so we shall never have to wear our suit again.

Or consider seersucker.

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