McCallum: Dressing For Dinner

Sep 8, 2015

While biking at sunset recently, I stopped for an impromptu visit with a neighbor, relaxing in a lawn chair overlooking her sweeping green meadow - a glass of red wine glowing in her hand.

Attired in bike shorts and a sweaty T-shirt, I commented on how her crisp outfit and matching jewelry seemed formal for the setting. She explained that she and her husband always dress for dinner, a routine she traces back to her parents’ practice of doing the same - her mom in a long skirt and her dad in one of his freshly laundered, pressed yet frayed-at-the-cuffs cotton shirts. In their thrifty way, they gave a daily nod to elegance at the end of each day.

Their habit was oddly linked to programming in the early days of VPR. As the story goes, an elderly neighbor used to invite friends over on Saturday afternoons to listen to live radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in her living room. The women came in long dresses and gowns befitting opera attendance from their heyday.

My friend’s parents were so taken by the idea that they started their own habit of dressing up - not for radio opera necessarily, but for dinner. This custom is now being carried forward by their daughter and her husband. And I was utterly charmed by the image of a circle of old opera lovers decked out in finery and sipping something strong while listening to opera in a cozy farmhouse parlor - a cultured afternoon, replete with finery and civility.

To be sure, life in these hills today actually lends itself more to jeans, T-shirts and mud boots than gowns and dinner jackets. Even honest-to-goodness fancy events don’t often require dress-up clothes. At an outdoor wedding I attended this summer, the bride and groom were indeed suited and gowned – but barefoot. In our casual culture, the notion of dressing for dinner is quaint, even when dining in a restaurant. Nowadays, men come to the table in baseball caps without so much as raising an eyebrow and athletic clothes are worn everywhere.

Still, not unlike Vermont farmers of old, my friend and her husband freshen up and put on clean clothes to create a boundary that separates work from leisure. Their change of dress draws a line of demarcation between an unremarkable day and the special time when they sit across from one another to share a meal and raise a glass.

It’s festive, mildly eccentric and, regrettably in most households, as outdated as the dinner gong.