Fashion and etiquette converge in sartorial rules, dictates about the appropriateness of attire for various social and seasonal situations. Emily Post addressed the importance of clothes and railed against the dangers of trends—“Rather be frumpy than vulgar!”—in her seminal 1922 book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. Post’s guide is a touchstone for our examination of dress codes and their evolution in the United States.
In 1961’s premiere episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the star finds his wife (played by Mary Tyler Moore) wearing the formfitting slacks that would become her trademark. “How’s your white satin evening gown?” he asks. They’re just invited to his boss’s house for dinner. Until relatively recently, dressing up for evening—whether for dinner, the theater or a nightclub—was de rigueur for men and women alike. Women generally wore trousers only at home. Some 1950s trendsetters donned pajama-like “hostess pants” for dinner parties and in the 1960s ventured out in wide-leg palazzo pants that emulated the sweep of a floor-length skirt.
An evening’s success, etiquette expert Emily Post pronounced, depends on clothes. “Not even the most beautiful ballroom in the world, decorated like the Garden of Eden,” she wrote, “could in itself suggest a brilliant entertainment, if the majority of those who filled it were frumps—or worse yet, vulgarians!” Post’s 1922 advice for gentlemen, who wore white tie for formal occasions and tuxedos for informal ones: “He must look as though he gave his clothes no thought and as though literally they grew on him like a dog’s fur, and yet he must be perfectly groomed.”
The garb donned for religious worship in the U.S.—whether people call it their Sunday best, church clothes or Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes—has traditionally reflected a reverence for God and for churches or temples as sacred places. Biblical sartorial proscriptions are vague, though the New Testament urges women always to dress “modestly, with decency and propriety” (Timothy 2:9–10). Today Sunday’s best can be pretty informal. Witness the T-shirts one Oklahoma City church produced that read, “These are my Sunday clothes,” on the front and “Got jeans?” on the back. Many visitors to Vatican City are caught unprepared for the dress code enforced at St. Peter’s Basilica, which forbids miniskirts, bare shoulders, and shorts on men and women.
Women now routinely attend services (even at the Vatican) in slacks, though some groups, including Mormons, still discourage it. The Old Testament’s express prohibition against cross-dressing—“A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this” (Deuteronomy 22:5)—doesn’t forbid women from wearing pants, though some conservative minds interpret it this way. But it’s a far-fetched supposition, as neither sex wore pants in the biblical days of robes and tunics.
On Twitter, the abbreviation h/t stands in for “hat tip.” Traditionally, men doffed their hats as a gesture of respect, tipping them in greeting or deference, removing them indoors and in the presence of women. Women are largely supposed to keep theirs on. The New Testament states that men’s heads be bared at places of worship, while women’s be covered (Corinthians 11:4–7), and women’s often elaborate church hats remain a mandatory accessory to Sunday wardrobes in many traditions.
The elegantly tailored Edwardian man deftly executing a hat tip to a woman followed a complex set of rules that dictated which hand he used, what to do with his walking stick, and whether elevators and corridors were to be considered indoor spaces or out. Today the American male’s hat of choice is the baseball cap, worn anytime and anywhere. A City University of New York professor has speculated that while the caps are masculine, “they embody a vision of manhood that is really about boyishness.” Post–World War II baby boomers emphatically adopted the trend, rejecting their fathers’ natty, full-brimmed hats. The fedora revival of the 2000s, in turn, was spearheaded by members of the post-boomer generation.
Men’s and women’s attire has often evolved in parallel. Mid-19th-century dress reform movements that concentrated on undergarments, for example, introduced one-piece union suits for women that were soon embraced by men, eventually freeing both sexes from the corset’s tortures. Hat wearing has declined more in women, as men have turned to caps, but as for pants, women have experienced most of the revolution.
Someone who “wears the pants” is the authority figure, often the “man of the family.” Boys used to graduate from short pants to long when they reached a certain maturity level. But well into the 20th century, pants-wearing women were considered masculine or even obscene. In 1853 reform-minded ladies in newly fashionable “bloomers” (pantaloons named for activist Amelia Bloomer, who advocated them) were banned from a Boston temperance convention and, according to critics, were thus prevented from “gratify[ing] their penchant for notoriety.” Long strides were made in accepting women in slacks by such glamorous Hollywood stars as Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s; little-black-pants-clad Audrey Hepburn, doing a beatnik dance in 1957’s Funny Face; and pert Mary Tyler Moore wriggling her capris to calypso music on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 1960s.
Soon after men stopped wearing blocked hats, they abandoned suits as the professional’s uniform. Some men rejected the corporate culture exposed by The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel (and a 1956 movie starring Gregory Peck) about, as a New York Times reviewer wrote, the “pressures, problems and tribal customs of the men in gray flannel suits, the ambitious commuters who are too young to be either successes or failures but whose time is running out.” In most of the U.S., men’s shops have since gone the way of independent bookstores. One retired Midwestern haberdasher attributes the suit’s decline partly to the broad reach of a certain 1970s polyester ensemble: “You’d go to a funeral and see pallbearers wearing leisure suits. It was a disgusting development.”
Traditional business attire is now eschewed completely in many professions, and some workplaces that still expect professional dress have instituted “casual Fridays,” allowing a more relaxed end-of-week look. Dress expectations in restaurants have correspondingly been lowered, but a few holdouts do oblige men to wear a jacket and sometimes a tie. Such dining rooms traditionally keep some loaners, described by a Times writer as “stained, ill-fitting polyester jackets of shame.”
White clothing in crisp lightweight fabrics—organza, seersucker, lawn—makes perfect sense in the hot months. The precise origins of the dictum that white should be avoided after Labor Day, however, are unknown, but they may lie in the upper-class practice of shedding summer wardrobes for more practical (and less easily soiled) clothing upon returning to towns and cities from country houses at season’s end. At some point this customary change in gear—also symbolizing the shift in mood from holiday to workaday—became an often cited but frequently broken decree.
The fresh formality of gauzy tea dresses with white kid slippers for women and cotton duck trousers with white bucks for men long ago gave way in the U.S. to shorts, sandals and T-shirts for everyone. In beach towns and other summertime haunts, tendencies to wear even less have made “No shirt, no shoes, no service” signs ubiquitous in restaurants and shops. Carefree dressing has infiltrated the workplace as well, and “casual Fridays” lead to annual etiquette debates about whether rubber flip-flops are ever acceptable in an office setting.
Unsurprisingly, color conveys meaning in clothes. The most formal color for one’s Sunday best, white traditionally symbolizes purity and is reserved for the stars of weddings, christenings, Holy Communion services and other church-centered events—whether after Labor Day or before. Black says funerals and mourning (as does purple and even white in some cultures). Other colors are trickier, both in connotation (red can signal allure or the devil himself) and appropriateness: Calling too much attention to oneself is an etiquette sin. As George Washington warned, “Play not the peacock.”
Green may best be left to real peacocks, Girl Scouts and Peter Pan. The New York Times reporter covering Al Capone’s tax evasion trial disparaged the mob boss’s “screaming green” suit, noting, “The vivid green draped on his 250-pound bulk made him stand out in the crowd like an elephant at an ants’ convention.” Etiquette arbiter Emily Post also dismissed verdant threads, sneering, “If emerald green is the fashionable color, all of the yellowest skins will be framed in it.” She warned men not to wear “too bright a green or anything suggesting a horse blanket.” Orange, however, she praised, for its alleged ability to deflect sunshine and prevent “hideous” freckles.