Elderly Dress Up

Hi all,
There has been a question that has been bugging me for some time. I tried to search and found nothing, but I am still fairly new so please don’t hate me if this has already been asked (which I doubt) :). Why is it that the elderly tend to be very dressed up when they are doing such simple things as shopping for groceries? I see people in full suits and dresses just picking up a loaf of bread. At first I thought they may have just gotten out of church or something, but it seems that no matter when I go into the store or see them walking down the street, they are dressed up. I personally think it looks kinda cool, in a respectable sort of way. Anyways, kind of a long-winded post for a short question: why do the elderly tend to be dressed up when they go out for day-to-day activities?


The simplest answer is that when they grew up, people got dressed up much more than they do today. Work, shopping, travel, a dinner party, or pretty much any activity dictated very formal attire by today’s standards. Some habits become very ingrained and are not easily changed even when society itself no longer expects such behavior.

You’re lucky. I frequently see elderly women at the Shop Rite who apparently put on their granddaughter’s playsuit that morning, and elderly men in shorts and T-shirts.

My mother, on the other hand, always looks her best when she goes out in public, as that’s how she was raised. I am a chip off that block—I can’t even take the papers out unless I have lipstick on.

It definitely has to do with how they grew up. Take a look at teenagers in the 40s – the men all wore suits and ties. It was the same for workers in the 50s – jackets and ties (and white shirts) for men, dresses for women. Heck, when I was in high school, the girls still weren’t allowed to wear pants or jeans.

I suspect that eventually, the style will come back.

My father REFUSES to wear denim…ever. He wears athletic shoes because he walks the mall every day, but he tells me denim is pedestrian and I shouldn’t lower myself. He’s a super-liberal kind of guy, but I’ll never understand his hard-on with blue jeans. Like, I’ve been wearing them like a fuckin’ uniform for 40 years! Along with the rest of the world!

Except me. I never wear denim.

I agree that it’s a matter of early imprinting. And complaining about it is just silly.

In college I lived in an apartment on the ground floor, with the mailboxes in the hallway about 20 feet from our door. If my roommate was wearing sweats (and it was always a nice, clean, matched set with her) when the mail came, she would change into jeans and a shirt (“real clothes”) to get the mail. (“I can’t go out there like this!!”)

She was 26 years old at the time – in 1988. It’s not just the elderly.

Although I do have to say that I don’t like to go out in public looking like a slob – I tend to dress up a bit also even for mundane errands. Probably because I work at home, and bathrobes and sweats get boring after a while.

Related to this topic is a phenomenon that exists in NYC (mostly Manhattan’s better neighborhoods) that has to be seen seen to be believed. I’m talking about ancient ladies dressed up like teens. [Eye-popper face here!]

You’ll see women in their seventies wearing mini-skirts, skintight tops and stiletto heels. From circumstantial evidence – the quality of the clothes and the neighborhhods where the women live – these are not what you’d call tacky “trailor trash” types (no offense intended by that term). Instead, I suspect, they are faded beauties that just can’t let go of the idea that back in, oh, 1955 they turned all the heads at the New Rochelle Country Club. Really, really sad.

Is it’s possible that an eldery person is less busy? There’s lots of times I feel I wouldn’t have the time to get a suit on to run to the shop. (Though I could if I cared enough) Just a possible additional reason.

Not in my experience. When my parents were alive, whatever they were doing, they would stop and change if they had to go “out.” Eventually they loosened their standards enough so that they might not change if they had to go to the supermarket, but if their trip required interaction with “real” people (the doctor, the banker, a restaurant or store where they expected to be waited on) they would always dress for it.

Also, I won’t go ANYWHERE without make-up on. Ever. I’ll go as far as the mailbox. That’s it.

Here’s sort of a tie-in thread from a few years back:


Novelist and social critic Allison Lurie wrote a fascinating book back in the 1980s called The Language of Clothes. It includes a discussion of the dressing habits of the elderly, and she noticed several trends.

One was towards a greaternformality in dress, with an emphasis on looseness and comfort. One sees a fair number of older people walking around in sweats who obviously do not work out.

Another tendency she noted was the one you describe. As previous posters have written, it is a matter of long-time experience.

There was a general easing of the formaility with which people in America dressed during the Twentieth Century, and great reduction in the degree to which one could distinguish a person’s social class by their dress. In his memoirs, Nikita Krushev expressed surprise that he could not actually tell that Nelson Rockefeller was a mult-millionaire from the kind of suit he wore. Somewhere in the back of his mind, I expect, he was picturing a three piece English drape suit with a huge gold watch chain.

These changes came in spurts.

Up until the late 1940s it was very common for the upper and upper middle classes to dress formally for dinner at home. Writer Calvin Trillin has told a funny story about this; when he attended Yale in the 50s his roommate observed that his family had not “dressed for dinner” since the war. Trillin, who came from more of a working class background, was shocked, and said his father would never stand for that. He thought his roommate meant he could just turn up at the table in his undershirt.

Coolidge’s son John recalled that his father had a fit once while they were living in the White House because he came to family dinner without a tie.

Coolidge’s time in the White House–the 20s–was a time when the dressing habits of Americans loosened up some. It is said that Coolidge was also was upset that his wife Grace, a fashion trend-setter–was seen in public wearing breaches when she went horseback riding.

The 60s were an even more notable time in terms of loosening dress restrictions. In the 1950s middle class women wore white gloves when they dropped over to a friend’s house. We laugh now at the way the parents dressed on Leave It to Beaver, but that is a fairly accurate depiction of how people in their social strata actually dressed. While it was relatively unusual for a woman to wear pearls as often as Barbara Billingsly did, she has explained that this was her habit at the time in real life; she thought her neck was unattractive.

I dimly remember that when I was a preschooler in the late 1950s and early 1960s my father would take me for walks on the weekend. He would dress for the occasion, putting on a suit and tie. He would also wear a fedora. It was customary in my family–a fairly normal middle class suburban one–for the boys and men to wear suits and ties whenever we went to church or to a movie until about 1970.

In New York City in the late 50’s, when my Dad and I walked to the A&P supermarket on Saturday morning he’d be wearing a dress shirt, tie and sweater or sports jacket. Now that he’s 95 years old his standards have slipped a bit.

If you are setting around staring at the walls, ya kinda welcome the opportunity to dress up a bit and get out.