The phase that headlines this piece is from Cole Porter’s song that was also the name of his 1934 musical, “Anything Goes.” Written almost 100 years ago now, Porter predicted our decorum plight without knowing it, a better scryer than those with crystal balls.
One of my favorite lines runs, “Good authors, too, who once knew better words,/ Now use only four-letter words/ Writing prose, anything goes.” Look up the rest for his astonishing prophecy, though it’s certain that Porter only wanted to make light of the rich and famous. Read today; he makes fun of all of us. It isn’t just authors who once knew the right words; it’s every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the mall or the grocery using every four-letter word they know or using the only words they know that are but four letters long.
It should not surprise us. Since Porter’s song, the degringolade of culture has only worsened over the five decades. And it is evident everywhere: movies, television, songs, politics, the cesspool we call the internet, and, yes, even dress. Cicero warned that, “[i]f we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity.” It certainly has when it comes to dress. Take a tour of any public place—and I mean any—and you’ll see what I mean.
Now I know one should never take on something as subjective as taste. De gustibus non est disputandum warned the ancients; one cannot dispute something as subjective as taste. But is that true? Can things go a little too far?
Let’s put aside movies, television, and the internet. These can be avoided if one wishes, even though such avoidance will limit one to a monk’s existence. What is inescapable, however, is everyday life.
A trip to the grocery store, the mall, Lord knows, even church, and one’s eyes are stabbed—to coin another musical phrase—by the horror of the comfortable. I walked into a deli a week or so ago, and the young woman I saw first had on a shirt that read, “You bet I f***ing killed it.” Is that really necessary? A few days later, another shirt I saw in the mall proffered a play on words with, well, fellatio.
Do I travel in the wrong circles? Possibly, but only Sunday last, a family arrived late, and their two teenage daughters followed them to the front of the church in what I supposed were shorts but could have been mistaken for something else. On the front dais, several young women home for spring break sang their hearts out in dresses three or four inches above the knee. Doubtless, some were praising the Lord for that, but it could also be considered distracting, even, dare I say it, inappropriate given the context. Schools now have “pajama days” in which one is encouraged to wear one’s bed clothes to class. As if anyone needed the encouragement!
I first noticed this decline in decorum about two decades ago, when professional people with whom I associated began to dress down. The university where I worked instituted “Casual Fridays” and, OMG, I feared the worst. Frankly, it proved nightmarish. Granted, most of my adult life was spent in the graves [sic] of academe where it is a badge of honor to dress down, business casual, meaning in this translation a tweed coat with elbow patches and a turtleneck if the affair was special. But I labored in yet a darker ring of sartorial gloom: librarianship, where polyester is considered a fine fabric. Thankfully, I am retired. Today’s librarians are pierced, studded, tattooed like former basketball star Dennis Rodman, and have rainbow-colored hair.
I do not hold this opinion about the dress of librarians alone, not all librarians, of course, but certainly the majority. Belle da Costa Greene, the African America librarian who developed J. P. Morgan’s personal library and became the Pierpont Morgan Library’s first director, was known to wear minks to work. When ribbed about this, she had the best line I’ve yet to encounter. She fired a telling riposte to her critics: “Just because I am a librarian doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.”
I felt Greene’s pain. I was labeled an elitist because I wore a coat and bowtie every day to work. When I outlawed shorts even for student workers, you would have thought I had committed a federal offense. But I had my moments. I was one of few on campus who could teach young men how to tie a bow tie. And yes, some had tried to learn from the internet but could not get it.
Some are surely thinking by now that not everyone can enjoy my extravagance in dress. Au contraire. It does not take extravagance to look your best. While I have never shopped there since they are designed for others, thrift stores around where I live offer exceedingly nice clothes—brand name, mind you—for men and women that anyone can afford.
Is there dress-hope for humanity? Probably not, but a thin, silver lining appears in this storm of the tatterdemalion. A new restaurant opened near us that underscored its strict dress code. Oh, be still my heart. And they’re not kidding. It’s not just no shoes, no shirt but also no flip-flops, no cutoffs, no torn jeans, and “nothing that should be worn to bed but not in public.” The bouncer will be at the ready to send anyone home.
Clothing is a mere appurtenance, to be sure. But no rule exists that that appurtenance must be unsightly.
Mark Y. Herring is professor emeritus, dean of library services from Winthrop University. Herring spent 42 years as dean or director in academic libraries in Tennessee, Oklahoma, andSouth Carolina. He was most recently appointed by Governor Henry McMaster to the South Carolina State Library Board. He resides with his wife, Carol, in Rock Hill.