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August 31, 2014, 4:19 am

A lament for an era of formal dressing

Last Sunday, I focused on Easter and related activities. I called attention to those who only go to church on Easter. I made it a point to look around in church this Easter Sunday to see who was new to our church, what they were wearing and what was being worn by regular members.

I saw a little of everything. What stood out in my mind were outfits that would not have been worn to any church in the past and other clothing characteristic of churchgoers back in the day. You know what I mean; women wearing hats which are clearly a back-in-the-day tradition. Our pastor even preached his sermon on the theme, “Right clothes at the right time!” Clearly, some of the outfits were the wrong clothes at the wrong time. I could not stop thinking about my late father’s words when I was a teenager. He would say, “Son, always look the part.” Thus, while many decades have passed since these words were instilled in me, I will always hold on to my belief that clothes still matter and we should dress appropriately for all occasions; as most of us did, back in the day.

Getting “dressed up” is part of my DNA. It may be difficult to know what it means to be dressed up if you are only accustomed to the casual style many people wear today. My dressed-up world means a suit, bow tie and polished shoes. This is what I wear 75 percent of the time. In an office setting, going to church, going out for dinner or traveling, particularly by airplane, wearing this uniform connotes being dressed up. Based on my observations over many years, going out in public wearing jeans with holes, shirttail out and a cap worn backward brings a negative reaction. Dressing in this manner in a store results in predictable behavior on the part of the sales staff and other shoppers. In the same environment, wearing your “Sunday-go-to-meeting” clothing, you are generally greeted in a friendly manner. I was taught years ago that what one wears and how one wears it dictate how others will respond. Thus, I believed as a child as I believe today, that looking the part is extremely important in many of life’s situations. In spite of our having moved away from dressing in a more formal manner today, I continue to believe in looking the part.

In a past column, I pointed out that my strong belief in dressing in a formal manner resulted in a friend labeling me a “fuddy-duddy.” His view of my attire, particularly in situations that are informal, is one of being corny. However, I do not see anything corny in being decked out in what today’s generation refers to as “dressed up” or my generation refers to as being “chocked up.” While most of my friends believe an open sport shirt, not even a jacket, is sufficient, an experience I had as a 12-year-old has a great deal to do with why I embrace a “dress to kill” philosophy.” I’ve told this story before, but it warrants sharing. On my way to a party, I was wearing my only suit; a light-colored gabardine with sleeves almost up to my elbows and the hem of my pants reaching my knees. A young lady walking toward me stopped, pointed at me and began laughing. I remember this though it was more than 60 years ago. While she pointed and laughed, I cried and promised myself that if I ever had a few extra dollars in my pocket, I would stay as “clean” as possible. Thus where a casual presentation is acceptable, for me, a jacket and a tie, always a bow tie, are preferable. I dress the way I do today, because of this experience and what was instilled in me, back in the day.

While my father was a major influence on my wearing the right clothes, my oldest sister, now deceased, will always be remembered whenever I dress up. My sister, a rather stylish dresser, took an interest in buying me clothes. During my high school and college years, I had an account at the Arrow Store at 12th and Market streets. I suspect I sent her to “the poorhouse,” as I stocked up on as many outfits as I could. She eventually had to place a limit on what I could charge. There was no question about what I would buy as most young men purchased similar clothing. Most of us purchased so-called dress-up clothing even for school. Recall the neat, creased dress slacks with matching vests and desert boots. There were no jeans and sneakers worn for school. This experience led me to other men’s stores such as Diamond’s, Boyd’s, Morville’s, Witlin and Gallagher and the fashionable men’s department in Wanamaker’s. There were also some fashionable stores in our own neighborhoods.

I suspect that how some of you dressed in the past was impacted by “hand-me-downs.” You may have had an Uncle Douglas as I did. Uncle Douglas, my father’s brother, lived in White Plains, N.Y., and regularly visited my parents. He never arrived without a bag full of clothing. I could always count on four or five suits each year. Yes, they were “pre-owned,” but most were expensive and gently worn. Thus, with a closet full of suits and sports jackets, I had little or no room left for clothing for dressed-down events. Perhaps my father’s words, my sister providing access to one of our better men’s clothing stores and my Uncle Douglas’s gently used clothing are basic reasons why I embrace a dressed-up style today.

I have often tried to understand how we went from the neat and presentable appearances of the past to what we see today, with emphasis on the disgusting style of pants below one’s posterior. I do not believe we can totally blame young people who display today’s undesirable styles. I maintain that we adults, who should be role models, share much of the blame. We do not demand that our young people dress in keeping with what we view as acceptable. Recall when children were going out on a date, a party or for any social event: They were called to show their parents how they were dressed. If dressed in an unacceptable manner in the eyes of their parents, they were sent to their rooms to change. I know you have heard words like, “You will not go outside of this house looking like that?” Church had its rules; part-time jobs called for dress standards; travel also had standards; and going outside for any reason had certain expectations. I support dress standards and policies for students, but how can we be critical of them when those in charge fail to set an example? My concern can best be told by my “Little Johnny” story. It involves a fifth-grade boy who told his mother he wanted to wear a suit to school on a particular day. She thought that this was out of character for her son, but agreed because of his persistence. She helped him get dressed in his suit with a tie and shiny shoes. The boy went downstairs and asked his father if he could borrow his derby. His stunned father reluctantly agreed. Now, he asked if he could borrow his briefcase. Finally, the parents asked, “What is going on? What is behind this desire to go to school dressed up?” The boy responded, “Well, I just think someone in the classroom should look like the teacher.” Well, everyone who stood in the front of a classroom looked like a teacher, back in the day. So, how can we expect our young people to look presentable if those who should be role models, particularly those in classrooms, look as if they are going to a picnic or party as opposed to teaching?

I suspect a number of people feel as I do about the significance of dressing up. In fact, many of you are probably wishing the days of young men and women dressing in a more formal manner would come back some day, rather than just being memories only resurrected when we take a trip back in the day.


Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.