Seldom does Miss Manners have the thrill of producing a shock by means of revealing clothing. All right, never. Alas, the world has grown too jaded to notice if she flashes a bit of ankle while lifting her skirt an inch or 2 above ground level under the coy pretext of avoiding tripping on it.
Failure to produce such an exhilarating reaction must be even harder on young ladies who grew up in the era of sheer blouses and underwear-as-outerwear. The young have such a need to shock, and what have they got to show for it?
Miss Manners is afraid they are going to have to work it out for themselves. A serious issue was raised in regard to shocking clothing -- more serious, even, than the desire to upset one's parents and teachers -- and Miss Manners has to make sure that etiquette was not slandered in the process.
Implications to the contrary, her position in this matter is firmly on the side of violating custom and condoning clothing deemed shocking. The issue at stake was an American military policy requiring all female personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear the abaya -- the long black covering and head scarf that is the local equivalent of the burqa, which was mandated in Afghanistan by the Taliban -- when they left their air base. This was in addition to banning them from driving, confining them to the back seats of cars and insisting that males accompany them.
The dress code was rescinded after an officer challenged the policy as unconstitutional, charging not only that it discriminates against women but that it forces her to practice the custom of a religion that is not her own. Miss Manners graciously concedes constitutional decisions to nine other people, but she doesn't want to hear that etiquette requires people to mimic religious practices that they do not share.
She especially doesn't want to hear "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" recited as if it were etiquette's inviolable rule on behavior in a foreign land. Rome is a wonderful city, but there is an awful lot going on there, including activities Miss Manners is not prepared to recommend that tourists indulge in as a matter of courtesy. Aside from the matter of safety, what was used to defend the policy was the desire not to offend the local population. Yet etiquette has other equally important concerns against which that laudable goal must be weighed when there is a conflict. One of them is the dignity of the individual, and another is national dignity.
Etiquette also routinely deals in the language of symbolism, which it considers to be of high importance. Miss Manners always assumed that the military, which also makes strict use of symbolism, including uniforms, salutes and posture, felt just as strongly.
We all know that the symbolic meaning of clothing is subject to change according to time, place, occasion and other factors. But the symbolism of rendering people invisible is neither ambiguous nor subtle. Nobody has any trouble reading what this means.
In going along with the custom, the American military was acquiescing to the notion that the mere sight of some of its own personnel, no matter how decently dressed by American standards, caused offense. This is an insult to our nation, as well as to the individuals. Even if it were politically expedient in one place, it is politically damaging everywhere to demonstrate a willingness to compromise our principles and our citizens to that extent. Besides, etiquette has never required travelers to take up native dress wherever they go. If visitors to the United States want to wear saris or Savile Row suits instead of blue jeans, it's fine with us.
Respect is shown sartorially by gearing one's dress to the level of formality of the host. An American officer's wardrobe includes uniforms of different degrees of formality for exactly this reason, and regulations specify when comparable civilian clothing may be worn.
Female rulers, including queens and prime ministers, and female diplomats, follow that standard. Their hosts have been clever enough to deal with the shock by declaring them, at least in their own minds, to be honorary men.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: As a 3-year-old (almost), I am just learning about manners -- and sneezing. Mommy says "Bless you!" and Daddy says "Gesundheit!" I like them both.
When I sneeze, Mommy says to cover my mouth with my hand (and a tissue, but I never have one). Daddy says I should sneeze into my elbow, so I won't spread germs with my hands (but sometimes that makes my shirt gross). What's a toddler to do?
GENTLE READER: Oh-oh. Trouble. Miss Manners hates to undermine parental authority, especially when the parents are obviously in control of her Gentle Reader's mail. Yet you have asked her to choose between them and, worse, she finds that both of them are wrong.
The only acceptable target for a sneeze is a handkerchief, or it's pathetic substitute, the tissue. Those who are too young to have one always on hand should store one with a parent and make sure to keep a parent always on hand.
Caught by surprise, the polite person protects others as best he can by turning away, rather than using something they will have to touch or see. So please don't sneeze in your applesauce, either.