National Voices

Friday, Oct 19 2012 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: 'Everyday worst' supplants 'Sunday best' in dress

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    Esther Cepeda

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In "A Visit From the Goon Squad," Jennifer Egan's 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, she paints a glorious portrait of a future where young people take a distinct pride in themselves and their appearance.

For instance, "all" kids were "clean," meaning that they did not have "piercings, tattoos or scarifications," which one character assumed came from "watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy" posteriors.

If such a future were in the offing, there would be something to feel hopeful about. But our society has become so spoiled, so used to being catered to that I just hope the day never comes when standards fall so low that even the military no longer requires soldiers to wear the same uniforms.

How far-fetched is that, really?

I couldn't believe it last fall when some members of the Marine Corps staged a mini-revolt by openly violating their uniform regulations to wear bracelets commemorating fellow Marines killed in action. They subsequently got their way because a few commanders wanted to bend the rules for a good cause.

After that, it didn't seem so hard to believe that the mayor of an American city could get shouted down for his refusal to relax the fire department's dress code.

Mayor Arthur J. Ward of Bristol, Conn., recently found himself in a contentious battle when his firefighters asked for permission to wear pink T-shirts to work in order to raise funds for and awareness of breast cancer. Ward declined because the firefighters' contract clearly states that they must wear blue shirts as part of their uniform.

Ward, whose own mother died from breast cancer, was sympathetic but nonetheless believed that if you bend the rules for one cause, all of a sudden there are different causes every month asking for equal consideration. There goes his uniformed department.

But a horde of social-media-fueled armchair activists united as one in an uproar and Ward eventually relented. Afterward, as the mayor's political future was being discussed, one Bristol resident summarized her feelings. "The mayor probably learned something from this," Amy McKenzie told The Bristol Press. "He can't just do whatever he wants, you know. He has to do what we want him to do."

Apparently, enforcing the rules of a municipal contract is beyond the mayor's purview in the face of an electorate that was raised on the notion that "the customer is always right" and that has spent a lifetime believing in Burger King's enduring promise: "Your way, right away ... now."

For most people, young and old, dress codes are not just passe but a form of fascism. Flip-flops as wedding attire are cool, Mark Zuckerberg showing up on Wall Street in a hoodie is a breath of fresh air, attending a funeral wearing sneakers and the local football team's jersey is simply a nonissue.

Last month, my husband told me that for the first time in his years teaching a high school class that includes a lesson on manners and etiquette while in dining establishments, he had a student angrily refute the very notion that anyone should dress up to go anywhere.

He took it as a shock and yet a week later, we found ourselves at the kind of restaurant where ladies show up wearing their good jewelry and there are no prices on the menu (because if you have to ask, you probably can't afford it). Seated next to us were diners who looked as though they'd been out hiking all afternoon.

Enforcing a dress code at a fancy restaurant? That's now in the realm of crazy talk. According to Frank Costanzo, the former manager of Jilly's, a once-swanky hot spot in Chicago that closed last month, "When the economy went down in 2008, Rush Street turned into Las Vegas Boulevard, the shorts, flip-flops and tank tops. And they're letting them in for dinner. If you enforced a dress code nowadays, you'd be out of business."

Our standards are in the gutter and I have little hope of being reincarnated in a time and place where people actually care to look as though they not only respect themselves but others, too. If I catch a break, I'll go before a time when people are regularly buried in their ripped jeans, dirty sneakers and "South Park" T-shirts.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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