Mourning decorum’s death

Times Staff Writer

A president was lying in repose, but the occasion could just as well have been a Saturday afternoon at Universal CityWalk, judging from the polo shirts, shorts, Harley-Davidson T-shirts, tank tops, flip-flops and dirty white sneakers with pulled-up tube socks.

For some people these days, there is nothing they will dress up for -- not a concert at Disney Hall, a graduation, not even to pay their respects to a former head of state.

When Americans went to see John F. Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin at the U.S. Capitol in 1963, women wore dresses and high heels and men donned suits.

But during Monday’s procession through the Reagan library in Simi Valley, many men did not even remove their baseball caps as they paid tribute to a man who was never in the Oval Office without a coat and tie.


“People don’t know how to dress for these occasions unless they have a copy of Emily Post or they are heads of state and they have protocol,” said Kevin Jones of the museum at L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, who curated last year’s exhibit “Mourning Glory: Fashion’s Untimely Demise.”

Kennedy’s death may well have been the last of the country’s mass dress-up occasions. In the 1960s, the hippie movement took hold. Youth culture began to influence women’s wardrobes as much as high fashion, and dress codes loosened along with social mores.

Many observers will no doubt chalk up Monday’s showcase to California casual, the same look that had recall candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigning in a Hawaiian shirt.

The procession wasn’t all bad. There were a few bright style spots: appropriately patriotic flag tees, stars-and-stripes needlepoint jackets. But mostly it was a throng of poor choices. One wonders whether these mourners would have worn the same ensembles to a loved one’s memorial.


“The sartorial criticism will not be as strong as if people were wearing shorts and tank tops to see Kennedy,” Jones said. “They probably wouldn’t have even been allowed in back then. Today it’s just not thought about as much, just as hemlines are not thought about.”