Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Put on Your Sunday Clothes!

Most of you will recognize this song from "Wall-E", one of my favorite movies. As I explain in my review of "Toy Story 3", a Pixar movie will inevitably make me cry. Today, however, I weep only for the lost traditions of yore.

The song you just watched speaks to the lost western cultural phenomenon of "Sunday Clothes" (you've heard the expression "wear your Sunday best"?), when people would wear their best dresses and suits to Mass on Sunday morning. Obviously, this has its roots in Christian tradition, probably dating as far back as the Sunday "sabbath" in the time of Constantine I. Since the rise of Christianity, those who worked did so Monday-Saturday. Our modern concept of the weekend wasn't nationally accepted in the United until 1940 (Pioneers of the two-day weekend included Henry Ford in 1926). This meant that Sundays were all the more special for people, since it was their only day off. Though the leisure class could afford to dress lavishly on a daily basis, the working classes had only Sunday to look forward to show off a new dress, a new tie, a new hat. Depending on their income, after Mass most people would go out to the park, to the beach, to enjoy some sort of recreation and to further display how swell they looked. The idea of Sunday clothes is about more than just religion, it has to do with a sense of decency and decorum that went out with the Baby Boomers. Nowadays, being well-dressed is optional. People don't blink an eye if a person goes grocery shopping in sweatpants, but even fifty years ago people thought it was important to look well-kept and elegant.

On this vein, in a relatively recent article from the April issue of Southern Living, Valerie Fraser Luesse pines the loss of three classic icons of feminine propriety:

"1. The Easter Dress
We used to start shopping for out Easter dresses before the Valentine's candy was even stale. An Easter dress was your prettiest, dressiest Sunday-go-to-meetin' ensemble of the year. It screamed spring: floaty fabrics in pastel colors; short sleeves, puff sleeves, or no sleeves; store-bought or handmade. Pearls required. and glovesHat and gloves optional after 1960. [...]
2. The Mother's Day Corsage
When I was a kid, if a mother came to church without a corsage from her children, the whole family went on everybody's prayer list. Now almost nobody buys one, and that's a shame. Here's how it works. You choose the flowers for your mother's corsage based on whether her mother is living or dead. If her mother is living, she wears roses or carnations in pink or red. If her mother has crossed over, she wears white or yellow roses or an orchid. Everybody gets baby's breath. It's just the right thing to do.
3. The Hostess Apron
'When you saw my grandmother's mint-green organza apron, you knew some cucumber sandwiches were coming out,' my friend Rebecca says. Back in the day, Southern [and most other American] women wore kitchen aprons, which they actually wiped their hands on while they cooked, and hostess aprons, which adorned and protected their good dresses while they served guests."

I guess my upcoming move to New Orleans really has me thinking about long-gone nostalgia such as this. Southerners have a reputation for being much more old-fashioned than Yanks - and it's really true. a New Yorker sticks out like a sore thumb in the Crescent City. My last visit to NOLA left me completely flabbergasted. I wondered at the courtesy and warmth I encountered wherever I went. I'm excited about getting more in touch with my New Orleans past. My mother and aunt were the seventh generation born there. I'm also glad I inherited my family's Southern sensibilities, which is why I really agree with Ms. Luesse in that it's a crying shame that these and other traditions have been abandoned. Of course, as she also says in her article, certain things are better left in the annals of Good Housekeeping...

However, in our desperate attempt to do away with those things we saw as uncool and old-fashioned, we effectively threw out the baby with the bathwater. The Baby Boomers were so preoccupied with breaking down the establishment that they didn't stop to think about what might be nice to keep around. Eventually we reached today's generation - the new "Silent Generation". Not silent like the first one, because it had been assimilated by World War I, but silent because we're simply not involved in anything outside our Facebook accounts or our television screens.

The good news is that I think things are changing. Artists such as Katy Perry and Christina Aguilera have done a lot to try and modernize the looks of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, making it cool to look retro. Lady Gaga and Laroux are both intensely reviving the 80s. Hopefully this will encourage other young people to examine the lifestyles of days gone by and maybe start picking out and adopting the things that are relevant in the 21st century. This is especially true because I don't know if we've really found our voice as a generation (thus the "silence"), so perhaps in a world saturated with information, we'll begin to combine the past with the future in finding an identity of our own.

Here's Hoping!

Nostalgically Yours

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