Are We Too Comfortable?

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The Article

I love a man in a suit. He looks like he takes himself seriously. He looks powerful. He respects himself, and he respects those he’s with. And if he lets his wife choose his tie, he’s likely colour-coordinated, too.

Few wear a suit these days, and perhaps it’s just as well given the cost of dry cleaning. But until relatively recently suits were commonplace. All self-respecting men donned them, and usually topped it off with a fashionable hat. Pore over pictures of the Great Depression, and you frequently see men, in three piece suits, sitting around playing checkers. Even the poorest owned a suit. Come to think of it, so did gangsters. I guess they figured if you work for Al Capone and you have to take somebody out, you may as well do it in style.

These days suits are passé. Executives and politicians may don them, but we’re a little suspicious of those who seem overly successful. Instead, most of us don’t care about formality anymore; we care about comfort.

Now I have nothing against comfort. In fact, I’m rather attached to my denims. I’m just wondering what happened over the last few decades. T-shirts and camisoles were once underwear, not outerwear. People dressed to show they took pride in themselves. Today, with jeans hanging below one’s nether-regions and bra straps revealing more than they should, it’s hard to see the pride. Maybe it’s there, buried underneath the metal studs, but I’m not catching the vibes.

Clothes aren’t the only thing we’ve sacrificed on the altar of informality. People once called each other “Sir” and “Ma’am”, or they at least addressed each other by last names, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They wrote thank you cards. Clerks believed in customer service, not in lurking in the automotive department playing on your iPod touch in case somebody might need help in toys.

Teachers dressed formally and expected compliance, even if the kids didn’t like it. Today the emphasis is on making learning fun. And students learn best when they’re comfortable, so the theory goes.

What about family dinners? For most families, dinnertime was a ritual. One child would set the table, and another would clear. You waited until everyone was seated to dig in. You passed the salt. Today many families heat up dinners in the microwave and collapse in front of the TV or computer.

I’m turning forty this year, so perhaps I’m becoming even more of a curmudgeon than usual. But I think a little bit of discomfort and a little more pride may be a good thing. We don’t have to go overboard; after all, I spent several years avoiding some relatives at family reunions because I had forgotten to write thank you cards, and I was mortified that they may remember the infraction. One of my worst clothing memories is of serving as a bridesmaid in a wedding on a day that made hell feel like a cool breeze. I had the good fortune of wearing a short-sleeve dress. The men wore wool suits—complete with vests. I spent the entire service staring into my husband’s sweaty face, willing him, and the other ushers, not to faint.

Nevertheless, I wonder what it says about us as a culture when our highest virtue is not working hard, or respecting ourselves, or taking pride in our accomplishments; it’s instead living a life when we do whatever we want, however we want to, as long as we don’t have to exert any extra effort. Even gangsters took pride in their work way back when. Surely we can again, too?

S. Wray Gregoire
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