17 Rules of Etiquette from Mom

 In Blog

Like many women, I regularly check my appearance in the mirror before leaving the house. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to the symphony or the gas station—I check my hair and lipstick before grabbing my keys and setting out. The ironic thing is that I grew up in a household where we were not encouraged to gaze at ourselves or preen in front of mirrors. We were taught to check our hem, make sure our slip wasn’t showing, glance quickly to ensure everything was in place, and leave the house confident that we were well turned-out (the highest of compliments).

My mother instilled in us a comprehensive set of guidelines with regard to our appearance. They sound a tad ridiculous now—not to mention restrictive—and are in no way universal. But they served a purpose once. They helped us to create an outward presentation of ourselves that facilitated safe passage. Our clothing choices provided a kind of soft armor that equipped us to go into the world and make a positive impression. The right outfit at the right time gave us a social portability that served us well.

Men, in turn, could comfortably access most places wearing grey flannels, blue blazer, white shirt, and a soberly striped tie. The shift to casual dress has meant that such clothing norms have evolved. Today a smartly dressed man might now wear chinos, an open-necked shirt, no tie, loafers, no socks, and a nice blazer to dinner in a high-end restaurant or at a business meeting. Work sectors have fairly well-defined norms of dress within them. For some business people, conservative suits are still expected. In other sectors, yoga pants and running shoes are acceptable.

Learning to “read the scene” becomes far more important now in terms of determining how you will dress and present yourself. An old adage used to be, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” (And yes, my mother reinforced this. “Sweater means secretary” was one of her expressions.) Dressing for the job you want becomes much more difficult with the shift that has taken place in cultural practice.

And so, on Mother’s Day, and to honor my mother and all the mothers out there who taught us that these things matter, I have reconstructed as many of her dress-code guidelines as I can remember:

  1. Only wear white after Easter and before Labor Day.
  2. Never wear cheap lace.
  3. Your shoes and purse must always match (never buy man-made leather).
  4. Men’s shoes and belt must also match.
  5. Buy one good piece of classic cut, well-made clothing instead of two or three less expensive pieces.
  6. Build your wardrobe around a solid color, like camel or navy blue.
  7. Girls and young women should never wear black.
  8. If in doubt, leave it out (i.e., don’t over-accessorize—wear a scarf or a necklace or a pin, but only one).
  9. Polish all your shoes every Saturday. That way they’ll look fresh for the week and will last longer.
  10. Never wear shoes with worn-down heels. Have new lifts put on by a good shoemaker.
  11. Never wear jewelry or accessories to a visitation or a funeral. Wear dark colors only, preferably solids.Bend over in front of a mirror 12.Before you leave the house to make sure your cleavage doesn’t show.
  12. If the skirt or dressisn’t fully lined, always wear a slip.
  13. If the skirt or dressis fully lined, still always wear a slip.
  14. Dangling earrings are only meant for evening wear. They are distracting at work.
  15. Ladies only wear white or flesh-toned undergarments.
  16. Always repair your hems and seams properly—ladies never wear anything with a safety pin.
  17. If you’re wearing gold-colored jewelry, don’t mix it with silver or platinum.

I’m sure that I have forgotten some. In truth, I now wear mostly black, I often mix my metals when wearing jewelry, and I love dangling earrings. But when I dress or rush to leave the house, I hear my mother’s voice chastising me, reminding me that “clothing makes the man” and I will “only get one chance to make a first impression.” So while the exhaustive guidelines no longer serve the purpose they once did, there is still something in our mother’s voices that continues to resonate. —

Previously Published, Silver Sage Magazine, May 11, 2019