Define “Casual”

Apr 08

lucyethelsamegowns.jpgOnce upon a time, when you went to a party, you “dressed up” in the outfit of the moment, complete with matching shoes, purse, and whatever jewelry went with The Look. There was the A-Line, The Mini, the Little Nothing (AKA the Shift), long full skirts, long tight skirts, short tight skirts, pumps, mules (now called slides, and for good reason), platform shoes, huge gold earrings, Gypsy-style hoop earrings, circle pins, simple stands of pearls, and oh, you get the picture.

To be well dressed, you had to be up on the latest style, then cut down on non-essentials —such as food —so you could afford the right clothes. Well, you had to fit into that dress anyway. The only other obstacle was getting through the party without someone else showing up in exactly the same outfit. 
Which happened.

To understand this quaint phenomenon, see almost any rerun of I Love Lucy. But if Lucy and Ethel had problems then, think of how they’d handle going out for an evening these days. . .

Fact: There is no prevailing fashion.
And don’t let anyone tell you there is. The reason for this, say the fashion gurus, is so that we all can express ourselves, and not be constrained by the one style-fits-all straitjacket mentality. Oh really? Could it be that no one has had the originality to champion an actual style since — when? The eighties?  All right, it was a dreadful style: shoulder pads the size of Cleveland, beige pumps, real gold jewelry so humongous it looked fake. (But hey, now that the market is down and price of gold is up, we can sell it!) For the eighties via Florida via TV sitcom, watch The Golden Girls, where the clothes are so . . . colorful, they take on a life of their own.

But at least the eighties had A Look. As Truman Capote said, bad taste is better than no taste. Think a decade and A Look will pop into your mind: the twenties: Julie Andrews in The Americanization of Millie, the forties: Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were, the fifties:anyone in American Graffiti. The sixties had at least two looks: Easy Rider and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sigh. The seventies had terrible prints and big collars. For some reason, I think of Sanford and Son.

What is The Look today? 
Black? T-shirts? Eileen Fisher? On the slippery slope from simple to plain, some of us started to look like Agnes Gooch in Auntie Mame. (Grey cardigan, anyone?) Eileen Fisher has its place, and it’s great for basics, but it’s . . .plain. Besides, there’s a banquet of colors and fabrics out there being ignored, even ridiculed. Try wearing anything but black in certain circles at your own risk.

Who do these non-exciting clothes look good on?
My theory: it looks great on the truly beautiful because it does nothing to detract from their beauty.  It is also good for the very plain, because they can look very plain and be very in.  The rest of us —the many, many millions yearning to go shopping, buy something nice, and be more or less in style — are often out of luck.

Mixed-Up and Mismatched

Lucy and Ethel would find today’s designer clothes totally baffling, which, now that I think of it, would make for good comedy.  Fashion magazines have always been unintentionally hysterical, telling you that this year’s look is “very wearable,” while featuring 7-inch stiletto heels and skirts so tight they cut off the circulation to your brain.

Lately the ads in these magazines are funny because nothing goes with anything else. They feature individually beautiful objects that don’t blend as a Look.  That’s because, my friends, there is no Look. Every season, someone declares something is in, but it’s a thing unto itself, not a piece of the whole.  One year it was Burberry Plaid. Then it was camouflage gear.  Then narrow belts. Then wide belts. But, did any of that go with the flimsy shoes in pastel fabrics? This year, or early this year anyway, plaid was back, but for sleeves only. I think.

So when we’re not being plain as sin, we are supposed to mix and match, be daring, create our own look, and in theory this is fine.  But it is a little like self-service gas stations.  Does anyone really believe it’s better to pump your own gas?  At least you can delude yourself into believing that the gas is cheaper that way, but your self-service wardrobe is clearly not. You spend a lot of money buying jeans, (even the Gap isn’t cheap and the average American woman has six pairs of jeans in her wardrobe), and you end up with a lot of things that don’t go together, 29 pairs of black shoes, and nothing to wear. Sure, this works (most of the time) for Carrie on Sex And The City, but most people can’t pull it off. Mostly, they just look color blind. Or like they don’t know any better. Or, like they don’t care: which is, in itself, a kind of Look, I must admit.

There are exceptions . . . 
Some women have no problem with all this. They have perfect pitch in clothes and have style rather than fashion. And as Yves St. Laurent said, “Fashion is temporal. Style is eternal.” Women (or men) with style create their own Look and look good doing it.  Others just ignore the whole thing and look dowdy/businesslike/ethnic/whatever. Some are young and gorgeous and look outstanding in anything that shows their navels. Some women like having 29 pairs of black shoes.

But frankly, most women today don’t look as good as most women used to look. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if nobody cared, if women were using all that Lucy-Ethel energy to do something fun or cure cancer. But women still care, or there wouldn’t be all those shoe stores and thousand-dollar purses. And men still care, because god bless them, they are now and always will be visually oriented, and don’t get around to noticing your soul until later. Much later.

Not only do non-gorgeous women (and I hate to say it, but that includes almost all of us) look plainer these days, the clothes are not as interesting in and of themselves. Think vintage Givenchy, Dior, or Cassini.  True, we didn’t get to wear the originals, but sometimes even the copies were great works of art.  One New Year’s Eve, I wore an original Balenciaga outfit borrowed from a friend (it was her mother’s, from the thirties), and I still remember the way that gown and coordinating velvet coat with satin lining made me feel.

Women, even men, didn’t used to be conflicted about wanting to look good. What’s with this In-your-face attitude of aggressive ugliness adrift in the land? And let’s face it, the style of trying to look so damn casual, to the point that we emulate laborers and farmhands, has taken control of our lives.  As for the Balenciaga, I remember the outfit more than the evening, so maybe it was a distraction. Clothes were, once.

On a New Year’s Eve in this millennium, you’ll probably be told that the party is casual.  Sigh. What the hell does that mean?  To me, casual is what I’m wearing right now: a hoodie, drawstring pants, and socks. But I am obviously mistaken. One party I went to was supposed to be casual, a kind of clam bake, so I wore white capris (AKA clamdiggers) and a nice tee. Most of the women were wearing little silk or satin dresses with spaghetti straps and Manolo Blahnik slides.

I didn’t get the memo!

I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a club that I don’t belong to that de-mystifies “casual,” and members are instructed on what to wear on any given occasion. (If you are a member, please put me on the list.)

Example: A dinner party at your neighbors. Dress casual, they say. Does this mean jeans and running shoes or a nice sweater and pants with jewelery.? All right, it probably doesn’t matter. It’s just that it was easier when you knew what you should look like. Then you could either conform or not. Conforming was safer, non-conforming made a statement.

I saw movie a while back, The Anniversary Party, which takes place in LA. These people are so cool that I’ll bet that no one even asked what they were supposed to wear, and everyone arrived in different degrees of casual/cool/structured/unstructured/ratty/elegant/whatever. One guest, a frazzled new mother, buzzed out on drugs of all nations, changed her clothes halfway through the movie, from a nondescript shirt and loose fitting pants to a Jean Harlow white satin gown. Nobody seemed to notice, that’s how cool they all were. Men were a little more uniform, as usual, but some were in suits and ties, others very, well, casual. To me, these people didn’t look like they were at the same party. 

People used to be part of the scenery at social gatherings. I knew this was a thing of the past when my younger and cooler brother threw a lavish party and refused to dress up for it.  He didn’t want anyone to feel as if they had to either, because this would make them uncomfortable. All those gorgeous hors d’oeuvres, striped tent and waiters in waiter outfits — and everyone else looking so ordinary.  I can’t get used to it. 

Same at the opera the theater, or a fancy restaurant. I’m not a trendsetter, so I fudge the best I can, dressing down sometimes, overdressing sometimes, according to the phase of the moon, mostly doing the basic black suit thing for the opera and for dinner, black pants and a top or a twin set (formerly called the sweater set— it’s not even original) with fun jewelry. New Flash: twin sets are back. How exciting is that. I keep hoping that some designer will come up with something original sometime soon. (Dior’s “New Look really was new when it came out), and that we’ll begin to celebrate special evenings by wearing something . . . special.

All this casualness does not come cheap. 
The credits for The Anniversary Party had a long list of designers, and I have to assume that the halter and jeans that Gywnith Paltrow was oh- so-casually wearing were not from the Gap.  She looked great, but she fits into the young, beautiful (slim and tall) category, and the less we say about her the better. There was also nudity in this movie, showing bodies that were not all that attractive. I guess this is part of the point, to be yourself and all that, but if we’re all going to let it all hang out and do our own thing, why that list of designers? In the sixties, a time of real hanging and doing, the clothes were outrageous, in bad taste, and glorious. Will anyone ever want to revive the clothes of the period we’re living in now, even if we had a name for it. The 00’s??

And anyone thinks that looking like you don’t care how you look is easy needs to see Robert Altman’s film Ready to Wear. A young photojournalist stands in front of the mirror, trying on dozens of combinations of ratty-looking clothes so that she can achieve just the right touch of grunge. A look that keeps coming back to confuse and confound us even more. Is it finally gone? Please?

Life is easier for men in the fashion world. 
Quick!  What did Ricky and Fred wear?  Who cares. But fashion is not without its confusion even for the boys. Going to dinner used to mean a jacket and tie. Then a jacket. Now, who knows.  It’s … casual! The men wearing jackets look better, but they are often pissed off because they see others more comfortably dressed. I have given so much bad advice to my husband that I roll my eyes and offer no help when he asks me whether or not to wear a jacket. I usually have no idea, except for the opera (I insist) and our arts club (they insist). This is so refreshing and makes life much simpler.

Black Tie Optional.
I hate that!  Talk about a wishy-washy, noncommittal, not-taking-responsibility kind of invitation.  Black tie or not — make up your mind!  I once went to a Maybe-it’s-Black-Tie-Maybe-It-Isn’t evening in East Hampton of all places, and people showed up in all forms of dress including shorts and sneakers. The only men wearing tuxes were the ushers, and they were complaining.

The beauty of black tie for men is that once you own a tux, it’s really easy.  There are no decisions, and it looks marvelous, darling. For women, formal is more complicated, of course. At the very least, it involves a lot of intricate grooming, including manicures, pedicures, hairdos, and makeup. And it might mean getting a whole new outfit with (gasp!) shoes that go with the look and can actually be walked in, at least from your apartment to the cab, or house to the car.

It’s a bit of trouble, sure, but if the invitation says formal or Black Tie, at least you know where you stand. (Or could stand, if those heels weren’t so damn high.)

Besides, it could be worse. The affair could be . . . casual.

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