Apart from my cousin’s wedding, the last time I dressed up to go “somewhere special” was when I was 11. That “somewhere special” was El Rancho, a local family-friendly establishment with a salad bar and “international” buffet. The food may not have been of gourmet quality, mums may have eaten for free on Mondays, and my meal may have always ended with two scoops of Neapolitan (or a slice of Vienetta on my birthday), but I chose to dress up nonetheless, relishing any opportunity to spit-polish my shoes and put on my finest pinafore.
The days of dressing up (and El Rancho), however, are long gone, with even the most fancy-pants, three-starred eateries loosening their dress codes or eradicating them entirely. Attending a concert at the Opera House last week, I found that everybody there, including me, looked suitably sloppy. There was not a formal dress in sight, a fact perhaps attributable to the club-style interval bar or pop-up Mexican restaurant set up along the concourse. Where, if not at the opera, can we ever be allowed to dress up?
Appreciating a smart ensemble, say Betty Draper’s flair waisted shirtdresses, and scouring fashion blogs hasn't had much effect on what we wear to actually going out. Many of us deliberately dress down out of fear of appearing elitist, out of place, or like we’re trying too hard.
I’m inclined to think this is a generational thing. My mother takes pride in giving underwear a press and wearing sundresses to church, yet I have an aversion toward both (ironing and sundresses, that is, not underwear and church). There are very few ensembles in my wardrobe that would make her proud. When I do go out to somewhere nice, a hand-washable top and jeans is the extent of me dressing up – and a part of me thinks that’s a bit of a shame.
A number of fashion forces have lead to this demise. At $800, jeans are no longer a strictly casual option, high-low hybrid dressing sees us mixing Zara with Zac Posen and the ever-ubiquitous pyjama look has been picked up by everyone from Louis Vuitton and Stella McCartney to Celine. Adding to the sloppy spectacle, we’ve taken a shining to trends that have us looking like we just woke up (‘bed hair’), missed a dye job (‘ombre’) and just stepped out of the shower (‘wet-look’).
We’re following how-to dress blogs such as The Man Repeller, who schools us in the art of wearing far-shun sweatshirts, and informal-formal designers such as Girl by Band of Outsiders, United Bamboo, A.P.C. and Rag & Bone. The most revered fashion editors traipse around the tents in a uniform of gray tees, button-downs, skinny jeans and ankle boots, while “best-dressed” K-Stew wears a frock about as rarely as she does a smile.
There are also economic factors at play. There was once a time when women would dine out in cocktail dresses, heels and mink stoles, with more dress code requirements than pieces of cutlery at each place setting. If I ever had an occasion such as this, I’d look at my wardrobe and realise I was screwed. These days, going out for dinner is seldom considered a special occasion. And with many restaurants tightening their purse-strings, few can afford to turn away patrons based on what they’re wearing.
An increasing number of wedding invites have also replaced ‘Black Tie’ with ‘Dress As You Please’, which in itself is problematic. A written dress code is democratic and understood, giving the invitee guidance as to what to wear. Without it, we’re forced to work it out for ourselves and God help you if you get it wrong.
Yet despite the prevalence of comfortable, casual wear, dressing up - being conscious about your decisions - is now a new way of standing out. As journalist Gay Talese said, “Dressing conscientiously is exalting in the act of being alive. When you go out on the town, it's an act of celebration … that you're here." You get validation for living or at the very least, a compliment from your mother.