Why Don’t We Dress Up Anymore?

dress nice

by Arlen Kane

Back to the fold

dress nice
Mom age 20

My mother made Marie Kondo look like a sloth and a slob. Marie Kondo doesn’t know what it is to fold an old t-shirt so a department store gladly takes it back decades after it was bought. Not that my mom ever did that.  But they would have.

Mom cared for her clothes better than fifty percent of Americans care for their toddlers.  She not only eliminated stains before they could make a home in the fabric, but she found new ways to use cleaning products that even the R&D department of Proctor and Gamble never stumbled upon.

She was a scientist of organization, and a wizard of stacking, folding, rolling, and labeling.  Label maker?  Who could wait for its development?  My mother made her own label maker.  With masking tape and a sharpie, she never needed new batteries.

A “clotheshorse” by any other name

In days gone by, my mother was what people called a clotheshorse. I gave that some thought recently, and wondered how in the world a horse made it into that reference.  I can’t think of a single instance when a horse wore more than a blanket. Perhaps once in a million times a horse wears a wreath of flowers if he or she was fast enough to make it into the Winner’s Circle.  And yes, horses dress in plumes sometimes, like the carriage horses that lug tourists through Central Park, or those that perform in the circus.  But, let’s be honest, they wear little else, so I’m stumped as to why a person who worships fashion is called a clotheshorse.  Nevertheless, a clotheshorse raised me. 

The changing of the seasonal wardrobe 

The loving care my mom gave our clothes involved a lot of ritual. Perhaps you witnessed the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace at some point, but you ain’t seen nothing like the changing of the seasonal wardrobe in our house. My mother monitored the weather like a gaggle of geese waiting to fly south.  As soon as the spring temperatures arrived and appeared to hold, out came the suitcases filled with our summer duds. Excited to see the clothes emerge like Sleeping Beauty who awakened from a long winter’s snooze, every piece of clothing held a memory of the previous summer.  Our local hardware store loved my mom; she annually bought out their stash of mothballs.  Larvae all over Manhattan no doubt communicated to each other that our address was a danger zone.

In the fall, we performed the ritual in reverse.  We extracted all the sweaters and woolens from their mothball trance, and aired them out for days.  Mothballs are a concentrated form of insecticide. When I remember our liberal use of these toxic pellets, I’m rather surprised that I’m not only still alive, but that my dear mother lived to a hundred and beyond.

The thrill of the hunt

When I grew older and flew the coop, mom and I met every Saturday morning at a coffee shop. The coffee shop was directly across the street from her beloved Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue and 39th Street. This was our jumping off point for the day. We fortified ourselves with bagels and coffee and took off, rarely in search of anything in particular.  How could you need anything when you shopped every Saturday and never returned home empty handed? It was the hunt.  We were the precursors to Duck Dynasty, with better outfits. The day’s adventure took us up the avenue — Fifth Avenue.  We hit every floor in every store, with an occasional break in the ladies’ lounge.  And oh! They truly were ladies lounges, with plush sofas and chairs to rest the weary shoppers.

The rules of the game

lord and taylor bag
image source: Arlen Kane

We had one rule though – and if it was broken, an angel didn’t get their wings.  We only bought sale items.  To score a fabulous item at a deep discount was a matter of honor.  It was blood sport among my mother’s friends.

The game continued when we left the store. You didn’t say thank you if a friend complimented your outfit.  Instead, you countered with the price and the store where you bagged the prize.   An example:  “That’s a beautiful dress, Marge.”  Marge replies, “$39.99 Saks.”  That was the win.  Not that you found a lovely dress, but that you got it for a steal.  A real designer label made you the talk of the neighborhood for weeks.  A big discount at a prestigious store like Bergdorf Goodman, put a target on your back for months.


Gaga over fashion

libby age 98
Mom at age 98

So, that was me and my mom and our ilk, all gaga over fashion.   Our closets groaned with the profusion of fabrics and florals – not my style, but it was certainly my mom’s.  We loved to dress, even for a casual event.  Mom didn’t own a pair of jeans until she reached her 80’s, and then feminine lace or embroidered flowers adorned the pockets or hems. What’s more, she pressed them with a crease sharp enough to slice a tomato.








Stay in and dress up

As we spend more time at home these days our comfortable clothes seem to call with an insistence that’s hard to resist.  I’m begging you though to listen to that pleading purr just beyond it.   It may be your own voice, it may be your kids’ or husband’s, or your mom’s, but it’s beseeching you to reach into your closet and dress nice today.   




About the Author 

arlen kane

Arlen Hollis Kane is a Manhattan-based award-winning writer.  Memos from Manhattan, her regular column for 50PlusToday, is reflective of her love affair with her hometown.  Her focus is on writing about the ever astonishing people, places and events that inspire the phrase “only in New York.”

After reaching 50, she fulfilled a childhood passion by enrolling in the Fashion Institute of Technology.  She designs and hand makes scarves, handbags and jewelry. Her abstract acrylics and photographs have been featured in a one-woman show in the Gallery of the Borough President of Manhattan, and in juried shows, including at the National Arts Gallery.

Arlen volunteers for Dorot, an organization that helps seniors stay engaged and socialized, and Big Apple Greeter, which gives visitors the experience of seeing New York with a local.


originally published Oct 11, 2020
updated June 23, 2022


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