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Miss Manners: Clothing traditions hard to adapt

Judith Martin

Dear Miss Manners: I just read about the tradition of requiring morning attire (until now translated as tails, pearl or black vest and striped pants) of all Justice Department employees appearing before the Supreme Court at oral argument.

Given all the precedent-setting possibilities implicit in this scenario, what would you recommend the new female Solicitor General do? Law is one of the few areas of life left that people take tradition and symbols seriously, and I thought you might be able to add an interesting – and much needed – perspective grounded in a real appreciation of etiquette.

Gentle Reader: Actually, nearly every profession or activity takes seriously its own traditions and symbolic clothing, whether formal or informal. It is not just the law, but also the military, the worlds of sports and of music, brides, street gangs and, oh yes, etiquette. Ordinary people do, too, which is why rock stars look like members of a church choir when they have to face a jury.

But the question of the Solicitor General is a hard one for Miss Manners. Not only is she generally fond of tradition, but she hardly gets to see anyone in proper morning clothes, now that presidents have decided that their inaugurations are not all that formal (or are afraid that top hats make them look like cartoon plutocrats). Japanese statesman and the occasional daytime bridegroom are about it.

In the Court, that formality symbolizes the stature of the executive branch’s representative, respect for the highest members of the judicial branch and the importance of the occasion. Well and good.

However, these clothes, equally suitable for major daytime ceremonies and social life, are for gentlemen. The ladies’ equivalent, of softly flowing dresses with hats, is strictly social. That makes them ridiculously out of place in a professional context. Not to mention that the variety expected in feminine clothes would be prohibitively expensive.

One solution has been simply to put the male clothes on females. Waitresses in fancy restaurants wear male evening clothes. Miss Manners finds the symbolism offensive, as it symbolically concedes that she is an ersatz male doing a male’s job. But neither does Miss Manners approve the female slackness she sees in orchestras, where male musicians wear proper evening clothes and many female musicians slop around in anything black.

So unless some great designer can come up with a standard, professional-looking formal dress – the formal equivalent of the everyday feminine daytime pants suits taken up by many stateswomen – morning attire will have to disappear. It is a shame, but Miss Manners is afraid that the negative symbolism outweighs the positive.

Dear Miss Manners: I am a professor at a large public university and recently asked the gentleman friend I have been dating for over a year if he would accompany me to a university social function.

He agreed, but three days before this event he told me he could not attend because he had just been invited to the 50th birthday party of a longtime friend and there was a time conflict.

What do I do? Stay home or attend the university event on my own and make his excuses?

Gentle Reader: Of course you should go. Miss Manners hopes you, at least, know how rude it is to throw over an engagement. Unless, of course, it is an engagement to be married.

Readers may write to Miss Manners at MissManners@, or via postal mail at United Media, 200 Madison Ave., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016.
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