Fashion Bytes — Dressing Up

Last week Suzy Menkes wrote a wonderful review of the new V&A Ballgowns exhibition for the New York Times. The article’s title reminded me of Raquel Laneri’s blogpost at Thanksgiving last year. In her blogpost Laneri recounted childhood Thansgiving celebrations where she had worn special occasion dresses, and that she had decided to revive the tradition by dressing up that year.

The things that struck me most about Menkes’s  piece were its title (‘A Celebration of Dressing Up’), and the fact that the references to modern ‘dressing up’ were all limited to the catwalk or the red carpet. Certainly there are other situations where ballgowns and evening wear are required — as anyone who watched the recent Met Costume Gala can attest — but how many of us have occasion to “dress up”?

Why don’t people dress “for the occasion” anymore? It used to be that everyone had at least one dress or outfit that was “Sunday Best”. What are the reasons for the rise of “smart/business casual” being the norm? Is it due to the busy pace of our lives, income restrictions, or is it inherited from the 1960s anti-establishment movement? Does dressing down represent equality, or inequality? Is the popular obsession with red carpet glamour a sign that we as a society miss dressing up? Do you think that exhibits like ‘Ballgowns’, the increased popularity of events such as the Met Costume Gala and the Royal wedding will have any affect on what people wear or what is available in the stores? Do any of you dress up or know others who do?

Please share your thoughts.

Image via V&A Ballgowns Exhibition website. Victor Edelstein, 1986. Worn and given by Lady Heseltine. Museum no. T.264-2001. Image © David Hughes 2011

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  • Arianna May 29, 2012 12.29 pm

    A great question!

    It makes me think about the vogue for outfits/garments that are suggested as great day-to-evening wear, just with a switch of jewelry/shoes/adding a bit of makeup. Is it efficiency, inertia? Are they effective in both situations?

    Do we draw a line of what is and isn’t dressed up? Is it a shifting baseline, or are there universal qualifications (heels, a tie, pantyhose, etc)?

    I look forward to reading others’ comments–especially on the in/equality question. Thanks, Brenna!

  • Christina May 29, 2012 04.53 pm

    I think there’s a subtle but very present social subtext to the whole thing. Because there is so little occasion to dress up today, dressing down at an event betrays a luxury of ease. It says “I don’t care, because this is just one of many events for me.” Wearing a pantsuit on the red carpet, for example, is considered transgressive, but most women who do so tend to appear in the requisite gown at every other event that year. They can “afford” (so to speak) to dress down. Conversely, “over-dressing” betrays eagerness and aspiration… like you’ve put all your sartorial eggs in one basket because you don’t know when you’ll actually have occasion to dress up again.

    Over-dressing is a popular fashion faux pas, but the threshold for what is considered over-dressed has been considerably lowered, in part because casualness—paradoxically enough—has become associated with luxury. It’s complicated. Casual dress seems to have become a type aspirational pose for some, while remaining an anti-fashion pose for others. The middle ground of those who would make their own occasion to dress up in every day life is bottoming out. That still doesn’t explain why we’re obsessed with red carpet style, flipping through slideshows in pajamas…it’s making my head spin!

  • Hope June 01, 2012 08.56 pm

    I think the idea of dressing down definitely comes from the anti-establishment movement of the 60s, but it has been taken to an extreme in more modern times. Simply put, people have become lazy and don’t want to make an effort to get dressed anymore. Take the trend of wearing leggings and exercise pants, which have even surpassed jeans in popularity (it seems like it anyway). At least jeans can be somewhat dressed up, but there is no way you can make leggings look nice if they are being worn as pants. I think in this day and age dressing down can really represent both equality and inequality. Most people tend to wear sweats on a regular basis, but you can tell what ‘class’ they are from by the brand name of their clothes. It is a very strange situation when you really start to think about it.

    I definitely know a few people who take pride in looking nice everyday. I know when I make an effort to look nice I feel better about myself, which helps me to exude more confidence. I think it also just looks more professional and sends off the right message to perspective employers and other people in general.

  • Andrea June 01, 2012 10.17 pm

    Those of us of a certain age recall when we used to get dressed up to travel. I remember ladies in heels and pearls for air travel. These days, that will just get you a hassle from the TSA.

  • Sonia June 13, 2012 12.20 am

    Its about the erosion of public space – the private now consumes the public and our public roles are therefore similarly diminished. Without public space dressing up has no relevance.

  • Worn Through » Fashion Bytes — “Generation stupidly casual”
    July 10, 2012 - 5:00 am

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