DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am at a loss to understand why it is acceptable to criticize someone for dressing "too well," while the opposite is totally unacceptable. Let me explain.
Last week I attended a retirement party for my husband's co-worker, which was an outdoor Mexican fiesta. I wore a festive peasant skirt (no pantyhose), sandals, a simple top and some ethnic jewelry. As soon as we walked in the door, the host literally yelled, "Hey you were supposed to dress casual for this event! What are ya doin'?" I was speechless.
Last month, a co-worker chided me with "Why are you so dressed up?" I was wearing a skirt, with a matching cardigan and, yes, pantyhose and heels. Later in the week, when I was dressed more casually in cropped pants and a logo-ed polo shirt, she expressed her approval of my attire. I regret to say that I did respond with a very sarcastic, "I'm so glad my clothes meet your approval today!"
There have been other occasions as well. In fact, this happens to me often enough that it has really begun to irk me. Should we all just dress in our sweats and pajamas? I'm certainly no fashion plate, but I do enjoy dressing in stylish clothes. And to be fair I am often complimented on my choice of clothing.
What response can I give to such boorish statements? The one I long to give is "Why are you dressed like such a slob?" But I know that would not meet with Miss Manners' approval.
GENTLE READER: Indeed, it would not. But Miss Manners can at least relieve you of the notion that criticizing someone for dressing nicely is somehow less culpable than criticizing someone for dressing sloppily.
A great many people seem to think it is. On a mission to dumb things down, they bully gentlemen to take off their ties and complain to hostesses that they should have used paper plates and napkins instead of china and linen. Presumably they want to make their own lapses into the general standard.
But they profess to believe that informality is liberating (in spite of their tyrannical attempts to impose it). So a polite answer can be, "Well, I dress as I see fit -- as I'm sure you do, too."
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Some friends of mine were delayed several hours returning to a campsite where I'd agreed to keep watch. It turned out that they'd had car trouble and, as there was no cell phone reception where we were camped, had no way of reaching me.
I'd known they wouldn't have been late without a good reason, and I accepted their apology. But their despair at trying to assure me that the delay wasn't their fault made me wonder: At some point does giving an involved excuse for tardiness imply disbelief on the part of the listener? Should one give an excuse for being unavoidably late, or simply apologize?
GENTLE READER: Miss Manners was waiting to hear that they had chastised you for subscribing to a telephone service that had no reception at the campsite. That would have been rude.
But apologizing is not rude, even if goes on exasperatingly long, and yes, some sort of excuse is required. A mere "Sorry we're late" after you had been waiting for hours would have been infuriating. Instead of looking for a subtext, you should have ended a response you probably gave several times --"That's quite all right; sorry you had trouble" -- with "But you're here now, so let's forget about it and enjoy ourselves."