At the highest levels of government, for work and during daytime ceremonial occasions, American ladies in official positions are now routinely wearing trouser suits.
(Well, at least senators, representatives and the ranking ladies who live or work in the White House are. You can never tell about those stylish justices.)
Miss Manners considers this an overdue triumph for decorum. The gentlemen are no longer subject to becoming overexcited by catching a glimpse of exposed ankle.
It is not often that she finds a sensible trend in the world of feminine fashion. Other such news -- heralding the return of what Miss Manners actually wears, such as hats, gloves and evening dresses with trains, rather than what she countenances in others, as she does the trouser suit -- typically amounts to nothing more than regularly repeated false alarms.
When the female equivalent of the male suit first began to be widely worn, it provoked outrage. Restaurateurs with fancy establishments declared that they would bar the door to ladies with the audacity to show up wearing pants. And that was in the first miniskirt era, when the same people had managed to accept the rapid retreat of hemlines -- apparently only with the proviso that that trend not be reversed.
At the time, Miss Manners refused to become aghast. The prescience of denouncing ladies' tailored trouser suits struck her as an invitation to join members of the French Academy, who had barred the Impressionists; and the first-night audience at Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring," whose musical sensitivity led them to tear up the theater. One does not recover from such reputations. And surely there is enough nasty business around to keep the discriminating busy without having to scorn what will soon come to be considered conventional, if not classic.
The grand restaurateurs' understanding of the gender factor in fashion did not improve after this defeat. When the law forced them to abandon their policy of hiring only males to wait on tables (with the notion that waitresses were better suited to simpler restaurants, where they could carry heavier trays for lighter tips), they dressed their waitresses in male formal dress, complete with bowties.
What this says symbolically is: We still have male service, but some of it is performed by male impersonators.
The difference between that and the female business suit, whether it has a skirt or trousers, is that the suit is an adaptation rather than an imitation. While benefiting from such advantages as freedom from worry of exposing various parts of the body to view and criticism and compatibility with low-heeled shoes, the suit retains feminine access to the full color spectrum and (with the addition of jewelry and scarves, and the addition or total subtraction of blouses) individualization.
More significantly, it provides that recognizably professional look that gentlemen have always been able to summon. In contrast, ladies were presumed to be present on official occasions only in a social capacity, and their prescribed wardrobes -- floaty dresses with whimsical hats for the most formal daytime occasions -- reflected this. Even now, there is an oddly reactionary tendency among young ladies to wear clothes to work that are amazingly, ah, social in original intent.
The trouser suit, in contrast, symbolizes seriousness. So do the skirted suit and the coatdress, if they are of decent length, and Miss Manners will personally stick with them -- despite that pesky problem of the provocatively exposed ankles.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have been noticing more and more at various dinner parties that the place settings are being done in a manner that appears odd to me. Over many years I have always placed the knife with the sharp edge of the blade toward the plate.
Now in many cases I see that sharp edge pointed away from the plate. Is this the correct new place setting arrangement, or not?
GENTLE READER: What are you thinking? That the Etiquette Council met one fine day and issued a proclamation that from then on, everyone was required to reverse all knives?
Not likely. What Miss Manners finds all too likely is that fewer and fewer people know or care how to do things properly.