Learning to Dress the Part

Twenty years have passed since my husband, Norman, and I sank into the luxuriantly soft sofa at a fashionable boutique while a supercilious saleswoman brought forth one garment after another for our inspection.

The way she looked me up and down when we came into the shop brought back memories of the elevator woman at a department store in New Orleans. ''Isn't it the sixth floor you want?'' she had asked me when, as a teenager, I was about to get off on the fifth, where the ''better dresses'' are carried.

No way could we riffle through the offerings at the boutique by ourselves. In the end, I chose a coral dress with matching jacket at the (then) whopping price of $120 - the most I had ever paid for an outfit in my life.

The occasion? My first lab-wide talk as Oak Ridge National Laboratory's ''new'' affirmative-action coordinator - and it was to be videotaped.

As our saleswoman disappeared to fetch still another dress, Henry David Thoreau's words came back to admonish me: ''Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes'' - and the equally potent, ''A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in.''

But then, Thoreau didn't work at ORNL; in fact, Thoreau didn't ''work,'' in any real sense, at all. Not only did he leave the pencil factory he'd inherited as soon as he had invented a better pencil, but he also was dismissed from his first teaching job because of his disinclination toward corporal punishment.

Nowadays, I would not need to go out and buy a new outfit to give a talk - not even if I worked for IBM, which has abandoned its longtime dark-suit/white-shirt dress code in favor of informal attire. And, as Lamar Alexander has shown, you may substitute the red-flannel shirt for the gray-flannel suit even in your bid to become president.

Sure, I like to look nice. I take pleasure in finding an outfit that becomes me and enjoy seeing elegantly dressed people of both sexes. Still, dressing up has never been a high priority with me, nor do I think any less of anyone who couldn't care less about fashion. In fact, from the way my husband dresses, one could say that, like Christopher Morley's ''Kitty Foyle,'' I favor men who ''look like [they're] put together by accident, not added up on purpose.''

Disorder, however, is furthermost from my beloved's mind in his preference for casual dress. In his words: ''There's comfort in not being 'dressed to the nines' - and freedom, which you don't get with a buttoned-down collar and a tie around your neck.''

As for making a statement with his clothes, forget it!

''I prefer,'' he explains, ''to be judged more for myself than for what I wear - to march to a drummer in my head rather than to the one on the fashion page.''

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