My grandmother was the queen of dinner parties. Actually, there was no entertainment or sort of hospitality she didn’t love. In the 1950s and ’60s, she gave formal late suppers after the opera— I’ve seen all the photos. I myself was witness to all of her constant seasonal and themed entertainments thereafter. She was always organizing something to honor the visiting maestro, or just to cheer up her confirmed bachelor neighbor.
She required that gentlemen guests wore a jacket at the very least, and at times, she would require pretty extravagant costuming up to and including white tie or “Chinese” themed garb. She was happy to put herself out for her guests and she had an expectation that they’d do the same in return by dressing appropriately.
She was an abysmal cook, though she tried earnestly, at times with terrifying results: meatballs with peanuts inside or pork chops cooked beyond dead with a Pepsi- Cola-and-ketchup sauce. For an event, she would usually hire a professional to man the kitchen and I would hide out there watching, helping, tasting. Periodically I would be sent out with trays of hors d’oeuvres and such. I got to be the invisible kid observer of so many behaviors, clothing choices, eating and drinking habits. There was no end of characters with strong personalities. It was a fascinating education.
At some point it struck me that the guests were all not just themselves, but were really wearing their personas. My grandmother’s cousin Charles may have been wearing his dinner jacket at a black-tie event, but really he was wearing his Cousin Charles Persona that superseded that little bow-tie. His huge signet ring, plaid cummerbund, thick horn rimmed glasses, pomaded hair and long-neck posture made him uniquely himself.
Another of my favorite characters who often inhabited these events was a particular lady from North Carolina whose persona required a great deal of male attention. Her signature look was the balancing of a massive hairdo with dramatically engineered cleavage that was partially encased in an overly well-fitted animal print cocktail dress. At 9, I wasn’t entirely in touch with why she was such the show-stopper, but she got my attention, too.
There are moments now when I miss Cousin Charles and his sort of gentlemen. I’ll be at a black-tie wedding and see so many men having a hard time being themselves in their tuxedos, and so many women struggling to move smoothly in the shoes they have chosen and yet are ill fitting. As a society, we are out of practice dressing well.
I think part of our fascination with the retro style demonstrated in “Mad Men” is actually a romantic attraction to the consistency of the style of that era. Maybe we don’t really want as much choice as we have these days. Maybe, though we defend our right to express our individuality through our clothing, our right to wear a tracksuit to a nice cafe— maybe what we really want deep down is to be told exactly what to wear. And to feel fancy and good and fine in it.
Not many hosts demand formal attire these days. I certainly don’t, though lately I’ve been thinking that my grandmother had the right idea. If she were in my shoes, she’d be enforcing dress codes, removing caps from gentlemen and requiring a jacket, or at least a cardigan, to come watch football at the house, much less to sit down at a beautiful table for dinner.
Tony Foreman is a restaurateur and co-owner of the Foreman-Wolf group.