An interesting comment appeared in my combox related to the proper way to dress in church. The gist of the message was that at times people “dress so far out of the fashions that it draws attention to yourself and distracts others from prayer”. In contrast, simplicity should be preferred, then the well dressed person is also a simply dressed person.
I agree with what precedes, if we first agree about definitions.
I call elegance the way a person of both sexes, but particularly a man, dresses in order to enhance his appearance in a stylish but traditionally accepted way. Elegance changes only extremely slowly, and the well dressed man of 1913 did not dress – considering the time which elapsed – much differently than the well dressed man in 2013 does. In fact, even elements like morning suits and frock jackets are still seen, even today.
The matter is a bit different for women, as the Downton Abbey lady would dress much differently than her modern counterpart; but in every age, men and women were able to distinguish between a well-dressed woman and a gaudy, inappropriate one. Similarly, whilst fashion always played a role in female dress, there has always been an underlying standard of beautiful modesty and simplicity. A good girl of today might appear in church dressed not much differently than the girls in the “little house in the prairie”, and kudos to them.
It is generally said that elegance is for men, and fashion is for women and homosexuals. Fashion changes continuously, and has elements of flash that can easily be misplaced in a woman, and look outright disturbing in a man. The “faggot look” you see so often today among boys and young men (those strange faggoty trousers, the v-shirts, and the generally effeminate look and demeanour) is a prime example.
The elegant man never follows fashion, because fashion is not manly. The elegant woman always pays attention that she follows a conservative, decent, modest fashion, though her sex will be allowed some more leeway.
This, elegant men and women do because, having been properly raised, they know that proper appearance is a way we show respect to other people. Whilst the modern slob ideology puts comfort and the self before everything, the old mentality gives right of way to proper appearance as a way to show proper manners. This is, I was raised to believe, a matter of basic respect and decency. Decency fully forgotten in times in which people think they can walk around in flip-flops “because it's more comfortable”; and if one is not ashamed of the flip-flops on the road, it won't be long before the flip-flops visit the church.
At the same time, I do not believe much in the modern rhetoric of “overdressing”. In a world in which slob is the new elegant, no man should be cowed into uniforming himself to the general decay in appearance. A man should be always properly dressed according to his means, instead of following the modern fads of “leisure Fridays” which end up meaning jeans and t-shirt in the office, or worse. Least of all should a real man be persuaded to go around like a bum because “nowadays everyone does it. Don't be an “everyone”. Be a proper man.
Now, we live in times when the general flattening towards the worst of everything may let one appear “overdressed”, who simply cares about proper appearance. More power to him, say I, and may his clothes always fit him well.
This does not mean, though, that elegance should be confused with bad taste. The Earl of Grantham will always be appropriately dressed for church, exactly as Elton John will never be. Extravagance isn't elegance, and it indicates bad taste, if not outright faggotry.
My conclusions are therefore as follows:
1. The elegant man will always be appropriately dressed in church, and the more elegant, the better. No one would say one could be overdressed in the presence of the Queen; the more so in the presence of Jesus.
2. Elegance doesn't mean being unduly flashy, or outright vulgar.
3. If an elegantly dressed man is considered “overdressed” in church, this is more likely to say something about how underdressed the people around him are, and about the extent to which slobbish dressing has become mainstream.
Proper appearance is a matter of respect for our neighbour. Proper appearance in Church – according to one's means and basic common sense – should go without saying. I find it very good – and very natural – that such a beautifully conservative mentality should find expression among the supporters of the Mass of the Ages.
And so Lady Sybil has kicked her finely chiselled, if so wannabe revolutionary, bucket at the tender age of 24 years, and Sir Julian Fellowes is today the most hated man by the women of the Country. I dare to say that if yesterday it had been made known that he has killed in real life, he would still have been hated for that less than for the loss of perhaps the most uncontroversially loved character of the probably most popular TV show on the planet. I would say that the ITV fat cats have guts, but I rather suspect Jessica Brown Findlay wanted to do something else instead, or was afraid of being typecast.
Be it as it may, the monstrous popularity of this TV show (excellent in part but if you ask me rather risible in others) is a living demonstration of how a phenomenon can change some habits, and let people think. I have read the UK consumption of port wine has sharply increased because of the copious amounts drunk on the series; I do not make any effort to believe that in times when even billionaires think nothing of going around in jeans, many people yearn after elegance, etiquette, proper things to do and to say, and a certain way of seeing life. It now appears Savile Row tailors are extremely grateful to the series, too.
What does this say to us? That TV series may change people. If not permanently, at least in the sense of letting them think, which Downton Abbey certainly does. Up to a point.
Sir Julian Fellows is, we are told, a rather conservative chap (I do not mean “Cameron” conservative, I mean real conservative). It is also said of him he is a Catholic, and not a wishy-washy one (I cannot check this, but to me you can’t be conservative in politics and trendy in your Catholicism; it just doesn’t square).
We notice this in several streaks and traits of the series: the only (thank God) homosexual among the main characters is the cynical baddie, and the other like him are was not better than he: nothing of your BBC “inclusiveness” here. Furthermore, rich people are depicted as having some amiable foible (Maggie Smith should get a monument) but as in the end altogether nice, and not at all exploitative; to the point that Tom, the wannabe revolutionary, looks very much like a childish idiot. Honour, scruple, decency, and valour are written very large. If you ask me, one of the reasons of Downton Abbey’s success (besides the wonderful setting, and the largely very good actors) is exactly this: the yearning after a world imbued in values that are not praised and set as an example anymore, and still are what people aspire to.
All this, I think, the producers perceive very well, and ITV not being anything similar to the BBC they have let the series run without any serious demand of politically correct insertions (think “history boys”; the shameless raping of the latest “Brideshead revisited”; the lesbian undertones in “Little Dorritt”; the massive homo propaganda in “The best exotic Marigold Hotel”; all produced or co-produced by the BBC) for now almost three years.
But then I think: is this not a huge lost occasion? Did Sir Julian Fellowes not have the standing to demand the inclusion of specifically Catholic – or at least conservative – themes? How easy would it have been to show a society where abortion and sodomy are simply inconceivable, and divorce barely thinkable? And if we want to be really shameless, what about a bit of Catholic propaganda here and there? It would not be less realistic than the one-night-stand of the heiress, the resurrected cousin, or the wise and prudent family head betting the farm on one Canadian railway company, over the head of his trustees to boot. And I spare you the young lady running away with the chauffeur only because the corpse is, so to speak, still warm.
Instead, the only Catholic we have is a mad Irishman with the maturity of a sixteen year old marijuana-fan, and of all the fiancées and husbands (real and potential; alive and dead; free and prisoner) not one has been depicted as a positive example of the True Faith. I wish Sir Julian would have insisted for more Catholicism and, if this partout does not go, a more clearly social conservative message, which would have been perfectly in touch with the times and the general tone of the series.
Alas, as it is we have the above mentioned wonderful setting, with less and less plausible characters basically changing personality according to the necessity of the script; and worse of all, without the robust injection of Catholicism which would have been so welcome and, I think, so eminently feasible.
As a consolation, let us enjoy some minutes of Maggie Smith…