Years ago, before things like topless swimsuits and miniskirts broke most of the rules, there were serious fashion taboos. Lots of them, including no white shoes after Labor Day, no patent leather in the winter, no suede in the summer, velvet and taffeta from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve only and head-to-toe black tie if that's what the invitation said.
Now, any fashion rules that remain tend to be more a matter of opinion than fact. Without a consensus coming from designers, retailers and sticklers for social tradition, the question has changed from, "Is this correct?" to "Can I carry this off?"
End of an Era
New York designer Bill Blass, who still clings to "velvet after February is a taboo just because it looks too warm," says fashion dictate ended in the '60s.
"That's when the youths of the street took over and everything exploded: music, art, fashion. There was a whole new concept: Express yourself; wear whatever you want. Of course, there are pockets here and there where things are taboo, but for the most part, anything goes."
"Without the rules, you have to rely on your eye to tell you if something is right or not," observes Patricia Fox, director of fashion and marketing for Saks Fifth Avenue, who notes the rule about a matching handbag and shoes "was among the first to go," closely followed by the one about matching jewelry.
So, there's really no need to put away your white shoes after Labor Day. Not if you agree with the fashion tastes of Salvatore Ferragamo and Yves Saint Laurent, among others. Ferragamo's white, red and blue spectators are in the fall lineup at Saks Fifth Avenue. And Saint Laurent's fall accessories include a black-heeled white pump worn with sheer black hose and tweed pants.
But tradition dies hard for some. Nancy Livingston, one-time film ingenue, currently a member of the board of governors of the Music Center, won't be buying those pumps. "I am incapable of wearing white shoes after Sept. 1," she explains. "I would rather go barefoot."
Born and raised in Milwaukee, she grew up hearing the fashion facts of life from her mother. And a number of them are still on her list. "For me, it's very, very difficult to wear a velvet dress after New Year's Eve. Velvet is from Oct. 1, through Dec. 31."
Although she still plays by a few old rules, Livingston wears pants (once reserved for rehearsals or the market) to luncheons and meetings. And gloves, which used to be part of her daily dress code, are now for gardening only.
"When I lived in New York in the late '50s and early '60s, I would never, ever leave my apartment without gloves," she recalls. "I still have two drawers with the most beautiful kid gloves, each between a layer of tissue. They're symbols of my past, of my youth."
Guarding tradition in New York, Charlotte Ford, member of the Henry Ford family and author of her own "Book of Modern Manners," has noticed that gloves "are on the way back. But you must take them off at the dinner table. I've been at big charity functions and seen women eating with them on. I've been repulsed by that."
As for proper wedding attire, Ford says if the bride is going to wear white, "You don't want to compete. And to my personal thinking, black is out. But I think you can wear a combination of black and white."
For years, socialites and designers were of a single mind on such issues. But not any more. New York designer Arnold Scaasi, who begs to differ with client Charlotte Ford on wedding etiquette, has no objection to either white or black, "except from an aesthetic view. I think it's prettier to wear color to a wedding."
And while his bridal collection includes "fantasy gowns," there are also strapless gowns, unheard of in Emily Post's day, which he has designed in response to requests from "young brides with pretty shoulders and chests."
With the rules bent all out of shape, it's formal occasions that leave most people to wonder if they will arrive in sync or out of kilter. Ford says she has no problem with a short evening dress for a black-tie event. White tie, however, means "tails for a man. And for a woman, it means a long dress, the dressiest you can get."
A long gown is de rigueur for a White House state dinner, adds Scaasi, who designed Barbara Bush's Inaugural ball gown. And it's also long for the key players at the Academy Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Grammy Awards, the Tony Awards.
Non-participants can wear something short and very dressy, because they will be doing all that sitting. But Scaasi, who has wardrobed Jacqueline Bisset and Mary Tyler Moore for various awards ceremonies, says: "It's disappointing to see a great star come in a black wool jersey dress. To underplay it so much is just boring."