Dress To Thrill

May 20 1999 3:30 AM

Dress To Thrill

You're only as pretty as you feel.

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Coming to work on the bus the other day, I sat across the aisle from a woman who was probably in her 50s. She was plain looking and plainly dressed. I guessed her to be a household worker. Her slip was showing. That is not unusual. What struck me was that the hem of her slip was lace.

I spontaneously said to myself, "What a pitiful attempt at elegance!" But when I got off the bus and ruminated on it, I realized that was a condescending and stupid reaction. She was saying something. She was saying; "I'm not just a two-legged vacuum cleaner or dishwasher. I'm a person who deserves to be respected and loved."

That bit of lace made a big difference to her. It was the difference between a work uniform and private, personal dress. Wearing the lace was a decision she had made for herself, beyond the requirements of her working life. She was expressing her membership in a class of people who have a life beyond work and who have some bit of "fancy" in their dress to show it.

To whom was she making this statement? To herself, of course. There may have been someone else--a husband or a boyfriend. But first of all she was making it for herself, to make herself feel good.

How do I know this, Watson? I have not interviewed her nor spoken any word to her. But I imagine that is the way people are. I imagine that people want to think of themselves as belonging to a group that they admire or respect and dress as they think a member of that group dresses. Their object is not to display their individuality, except that they want to choose their group. I don't believe that people in China were happy all wearing the same Mao jackets, because that did not express membership in a group that they had chosen. I understand that under those Mao jackets there were frequently bits of colorful clothing that reflected more private choices.

The message of the clothing is first of all to the wearer. I think of those girls in West Side Story singing "I Feel Pretty!" They didn't sing "I'm So Pretty." The important thing for them was to feel pretty, and they associated the way they dressed with the feeling of being pretty.

We see all the young women--and some not-so-young--walking around in the office district in short, black dresses and shoes with built-up, chunky heels. For many of them, that is not the most becoming outfit they could wear. That depends on how good their legs are. And they are surely not expressing individuality. They are expressing their membership in a class of women who are smart, professional, liberated, and also feminine and sexy. They are expressing it to themselves and to whomever may be looking.

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A t the street corner there is a group of young men with exceedingly droopy trousers and black, high shoes. The laces flopping loosely. They are imitating prison dress. In their way--which may be entirely peaceful and law-abiding--they are showing their solidarity with those who thumb their noses at the mores of bourgeois society.

What about all those men you see in gray slacks and navy blue blazers with brass buttons? They are ever-young alumni of Eastern colleges--or want to feel they are. They are proud to be "Scarsdale Galahads," "Brooks Brothers types," despite the disdain with which those words are used in Guys and Dolls.

Of course, the extreme in men's dress is the dinner jacket. All men--at least, the ones I know--say they hate to have to get into that monkey suit. They curse as they struggle with the bow tie. But is there a man with a soul so dead, or a waist so big, that he does not smile and say, "Bond, James Bond," when he looks at himself in the mirror fully attired?

When I was in the Nixon administration, we were all very buttoned-down during the week. On Saturdays, however, when only the "responsible" people, the presidential appointees, came to work in the White House and the Executive Office Building, casual dress was the uniform. That was our way of showing, to ourselves especially, that we were intimates of those eminent locations.

And what about me now? On the days I go to my office, I wear a flannel shirt with no necktie if the weather is cool. In warm weather, I wear an open-necked sport shirt with no jacket. Some people have said that I dress "Israeli style," but that isn't really it. I am asserting my membership in the club of "Old Geezers." We have paid our dues. We are free of obligations, including the obligation to dress like everyone else. We know that our dress is only a trivial sign of our liberation, but it is a sign we enjoy.

So, hail to you, my lace-bedecked bus mate! May you always be elegant to yourself, as you will always be to me.

Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He died in September 1999.