Monday, August 3, 2009

What to wear

When we lived in Russia I observed that Russians normally have "indoor" and "outdoor" clothing. What I mean by this is something quite different than what we might associate with those terms in North America. For us, outdoor tends to refer to hats, coats, boots and such "extras" that are removed when one enters the house. For Russians, indoor clothing is that which one wears around one's own home. It is usually quite simple, often rather worn from years of use. For women it often includes some type of "housecoat" that goes over the top of whatever else one has on to protect it while doing household chores.

Outdoor clothing, by contrast, is the clothing one wears when in public. These clothes are always maintained in the nicest condition one can afford. It is very important to look nice when one is in public, regardless of one's status. The level of quality will of course vary depending on one's means and position. But nevertheless, one would never dream of going out in public wearing one's ordinary house clothes. Because most Russians cannot afford a large wardrobe, it is most important that these outdoor clothes be maintained as best as possible. For this reason they are taken off as soon as one returns home for an extended period (though not necessarily if one just drops in between errands, for example.)

I have adopted this mentality in many ways. I am often appalled by the clothing that Americans will wear in public. Going to Walmart can almost make my stomach churn. Have we lost all sense of public decency? Do people ever look in the mirror before going out of the house? I fully appreciate the comfort and convenience of dressing casually, but casual doesn't have to mean sloppy, exposing one's less-than-finest points for public viewing. Last week I had to drop the children off for a morning program. I was in a bit of a hurry, so I left on my morning workout clothes, which is basically a pair of casually fleece shorts and a t-shirt. On the way home I stopped at the gas station to fill the car. While pumping my gas, I stopped and looked at myself and realized that I was embarrassed by what I was wearing. I felt like I was much too casually dressed, even though I was only at the gas station. Probably no one else thought anything about my attire. But I sure did.

I am not calling for a return to a stuffy formalism in society. But I do wonder if society wouldn't benefit from restoring to some degree the boundary between the public and the private spheres. The clothing we wear represents a small but significant aspect of that. We don't need to institute "fashion police." But restoring some sense of "decorum" to society wouldn't hurt us. It might even help us move towards restoring the civility to society, the civility whose decline is often lamented these days.

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