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I was on a long train trip this week, and thinking about the erosion of most of the things that once upon a time would have made train travel elegant and enjoyable. I scrambled to buy an overpriced grilled cheese sandwich at the station (realising once on the train that they’d given me the wrong order), spilled coffee on my skirt, and somewhere in the taxi to train chaos lost my sweater.
When I was in graduate school, I would sometimes see a train waiting at the platform at Kings Cross Station in London. Through the windows I saw a dining car with flowers on each table. I don't know that elegant-seeming train’s destination or even if it still exists. (I was there to catch a different service, which had no dining car.)
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I've travelled by sleeper train on three continents, and I enjoy it as an option. But glamorous it ain't, these days. It was a particularly amusing episode of Sex and the City where Samantha and Carrie decide to travel from New York to Los Angeles by train, imagining that it will be an elegant adventure like being in North by Northwest. Instead they get the plastic tables, family seating meals of Amtrak and the lack of Cosmopolitans from the bar.
It’s also pricey. Amtrak couchettes have two beds but if you're traveling alone, you have to pay for both. Fifty years ago, it would have been possible to book one berth and agree to share the cabin with someone of the same sex. Similarly, cruise ships used to allow people to double up with strangers generations ago. But today, a youth hostel is probably the only such shared environment.
But this is the general downgrading of everything, feeling like you pay more to get less. People don't dress up to travel either. It’s not a special occasion, but the grimmest of chores. (And if your attitude is screw you, I want to be comfortable, maybe you're part of the problem). How you dress is not just about your desire for an elastic waistband. It's about respect for the location and those around you.
This has come into discussion in recent days with a decision for the US Senate to abandon their dress code. This has included lots of discussion of John Fetterman (D-PA), whose horrible taste means that he wears sweatpants shorts and a hoodie apparently every single day. He officiates weddings looking like he’s in-between sets at the weight room.
People have speculated that this is due to poor motor control (meaning he can’t do buttons easily) following a stroke, or that it’s just an obnoxious flex from a rich white guy (who has spent his whole life in the kind of privilege that means always getting away with dressing badly).
But abandoning dress codes, in the few places that still have them, is part of this broader race to the bottom that makes everything worse.
There have long been academics (let's be real: mostly men), who seemed to make an identity out of looking like a drifter. I’ve seen eccentric old profs not just dressed unfashionably but wearing clothes that were torn and dirty. There is even a professor or hobo website, where visitors can guess whether the man in the picture is a vagrant or distinguished chair of mathematics. (Perhaps now there can be a “senator or hobo” website).
For some it's obviously an affectation. A pose of I'm so focused on being a genius, I can't attend to such pedestrian matters as attire. But like some have suggested for Fetterman, it’s really a flex of the affluent and privileged, and being in a very tolerant profession. I can dress like I sleep in a ditch and still command respect.
One of the people weighing in on the Senate situation was Derek Guy, something of a micro celebrity online with the twitter account @dieworkwear. He offers his dissection of tailoring quality, and sometimes the outfits of celebrities. His insights on fashions, suit cuts (and what to look for when shopping for menswear) are entertaining. And he has pointed out that once upon a time, the suit was not the “dressed up” option. It was the attire for the working man. Elites (like senators) would have worn a frock coat. In 1900, coal miners wore suits. TO WORK.
Yet convenience, fashion and a kind of generational regression means that for many today, putting on a suit is seen as making an exceptional effort. Seinfeld is possibly the last TV show that was not set in an office, yet in which characters regularly wore ties. We saw Jerry and George - and even Kramer - in ties to go out to dinner, etc. Jerry was often shown wearing a suit for his stand up sets. This was when “business casual” still included a tie.
But looking around at fellow train sufferers, it's not just a general vibe of slovenliness. It's that the little accoutrements that make it more survivable for all of us have disappeared. I've occasionally managed to scare up an Amtrak red cap porter and they've been great: escorted me to my train, and carried my bags. But I've never seen a porter at a European or Asian railway station.
The disappearance of things like porters, a bar car, or even the refreshment cart coming through, always add up to make rail travel less fun, and make car travel seem much more attractive. When I find myself climbing onto a commuter train covered in graffiti or smelling of pee (or both) I don't think of convenience or the environmental virtue of train use, but what poor life choices landed me here? It’s that creeping sensation of not being the hero of the story but the mark. Helplessly trapped as you listen to the crackling announcement of a 20 minute delay. The carriage is hot and the windows are stuck, you’re thirsty and you won’t be home for hours.
On one leg of my trip, I was sitting across from two young women, maybe early 20s, excitedly on their way somewhere. They took it in turns to go and get changed in the tiny lavatory, from their jeans and tees to Forever 21 micro dresses (still worn with adidas shoes), returning to their seats in a cloud of bodyspray.
I sat there looking at the bruise on my knee and wishing I’d bought a bottle of wine. It was getting dark outside. I flicked through the books on my Kindle, too hot, bored and tired to read a political history. I had been working my way through an Auchincloss novel, where the theme is also social decline.
It describes the world of high society New Yorkers circa 1910, and young men making their way on Wall Street. I’m sure their firms didn’t even need a published dress code: these young men from Groton or Choate all knew how to dress. But the less privileged man, the social climber: he needed hints, how to fit in with this new crowd.
In this way dress codes, like uniforms, aren’t an oppressive structure from above, but a subtle boost for those who otherwise have no clue. Do this, and you will be ok. We all need guidelines sometimes (and I thus hate with a fury invitations or venues that offer some vague suggestion: what the hell is “elegant casual”?). Make the rules clear, we can all feel equal. Set a bar for us all to reach, rather than removing all expectation so we slide down to the worst.