16 February 2010


This morning, as my husband and I were debating the merits of getting up and getting coffee or just staying in bed all day (He'd been working all night, and we're mid-snowstorm), we got a call from my father. He had some sad news to share: one of my (moderately distant) relatives had died after a long struggle with cancer.

"The funeral's on Thursday," he said.

"I want to go," I said. We don't see that part of the family that often, but some things - like funerals - are Important.

After he'd hung up, the husband and I had a Dreadful Realization: neither of us owns a simple, conservative black suit in our size any more. I'm just a squidge too broad in the beam for my late-'90s Lower Broadway Web Designer suits still, and as for the husband, well, I'm glad he's not skinny enough to wear a 28" waist anymore, but that's the size to which all his suits (from a similar era of master-of-the-universeship) are tailored.

So guess what we're off to do today?

I'm easy. I'm entirely certain that, for under $100, I'll be able to find a good-quality black suit at either TJ Maxx or Marshalls - maybe, if my shopping karma is truly excellent today, I'll snag a $15 Goodwill special. He's going to be a bit harder. Last time I needed to get a men's suit in a hurry, I had Century 21 and Syms in a two-block radius from my office building. Those days are gone, and for the most part, I don't miss them.

Why is it even important?

Deaths, births, marriages, and comings-of-age are lifecycle events - the rituals that mark an individual's change of status in a society. If I wanted to get very Tibetan Buddhist about it, I'd say that they are between states: transitions from one phase to another. Entire books of social theory have been written on why these ceremonies and rituals are important.

To a large extent, modern European/American society has discarded these rituals, or permuted them into something very different than once they were. Pick up a copy of a bridal magazine (Go on, I dare you! Just make sure you do a warm-up set and put on your weight belt first) or go to an over-the-top suburban bar/bat mitzvah and you'll know what I mean.

Funerals are different. For one thing, our society has gotten very out of touch with death. We stave it off, try to deny its existence, are disturbed by its mere mention. In some ways, it's understandable: modern medicine, sanitation, and nutrition have made death a much less frequent occurrence that happens at greater and greater ages. Generally. Infant mortality has never been so low, nor lifespans so long.

But death does come, and, stave it off though we might, it is inevitable: death is the one common experience all living things share. We're not taught the skill set to deal with it gracefully, though. In a way, that's good: we don't know how to deal with it because we encounter it so seldom. When we do, though, it's awkward. We don't know what to say or how to act.

As always, my answer is sartorial. Enter the conservative black suit.

As funeral wear, the conservative black suit (women have options on trousers or knee-length skirt; men, unless they're very Scottish, should most likely stick to trou) serves multiple purposes. It conveys respect, both for the departed and for their grieving loved ones, and it serves as armor and uniform for the equally-bereaved guest.

Armor and uniform. Those are two important things, in trying times.

Uniform because it frees you from the necessity/obligation of too many decisions, at a time when - quite frankly - clothes may be the last thing on your mind. Also, it provides the comfort of solidarity: you and your fellow mourners are dressed in similar ways, and derive an automatic sense of fellow-feeling and support from it. Even if you weren't particularly close to the deceased, your donning of the uniform of mourning shows the bereaved that you are there for them, participating in their sorrow.

Armor - it is amazing how the right clothes can stand between us and the world, us and our emotions. When a dear friend's father died unexpectedly, she later told me, she instinctively reached for her corset: she needed its steel-boned support as a bulwark. Even garments that are less literally armor-like can provide the sense of security and safety that can be elusive during a time of upheaval and dramatic change.

So, as soon as the snow lets up, we're heading out to look. I'm incredulous that I'm so unprepared: for years, it's been my maxim to always have a dark suit ready to go, in case of emergencies. Birth and marriage you can anticipate.

What do you think? Is my insistence on conservative black suits (with non-shiny accessories, natch) for funerals old-fashioned? How do you dress for unexpected sorrowful events, and how does it affect your mood and behavior?


  1. It may be old-fashioned, but I agree entirely. I'd be willing to go navy blue, and you can make a case for black separates if not a true suit. But for me, funeral attire should be conservative and in either dark blue or black. I even go as far to say women should wear either slacks or hose, no bare legs.

    It's about respect. Not just for the dead, but for those who are left behind. Maybe the guy in the coffin relaly got a kick out of your assless chaps and hot pink tank top, but I doubt his grieving grandmother agrees. I'm not sure why this concept is so difficult to grasp.

    And don't get me started on weddings.

  2. I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. The last funeral I went to (and hopefully the last for a while), I wore black, but not from head to toe. I think, if I recall, I wore gray pants. However, what I noticed was that other attendees didn't stick to the strictly black rule - it was in general a dark color, but not neccesarily black.

  3. Thanks for your comments and sympathy.

    I agree that dark, somber colors (gray, 'sad' browns, navy) are acceptable too. I have a marked preference for black myself, but that's my choice. Dranaan's completely on-base about respect for the departed's family and other loved ones: that's what really matters.

  4. I too am so sorry for your loss.
    Your so right though, death is not talked about in our society that much, even though, the last time I checked...the percentage of people dying in the world is 100%! (sorry, had to lighten the mood! hehe)

    But the last funeral I went to was for a friend of mine in highschool that relocated to heaven after a car accident. I wore a black sheath dress with a black cardigain and pearls. Classic and Classy. I dont think a suit is nessisary for women, but definatly for men!


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