My personal education on the potential value of the family table started during my first visit to my future in-law’s home. My fiancée of three months (now my wife of 14 years), Leah, stopped me in the upstairs hallway during a typically gray dribbly spring day in Seattle, Washington.
“Stop,” she said. I obliged. I stood frozen in the hall as she gave me a full once-over.
She scanned my face, my chest, my legs, and my feet. As her gaze returned to my face, her crystal blue eyes were electric with puzzled wonder. It wasn’t my spectacular physique that caught her attention – this time.
It was my clothing.
“You’re wearing that to dinner?” she asked, eyebrow arched, outstretched hand waving at my ensemble.
I looked down at my gray t-shirt with the words “School of Hard Knocks: Phys. Ed. Dept.” screen-printed in crimson, orange mesh shorts, and bright blue Nike Air Max tennis shoes. I looked back up at her and shrugged my shoulders.
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused. “It’s what I have on.”
I didn’t understand her question. After all, we were on a recreational trip. I wasn’t going to a job interview or a business meeting. I was getting to know her family, which to me meant being comfortable and being myself.
“My brothers and dad always wear a nice collared shirt and slacks,” she replied.
“Didn’t your mother make you get dressed for dinner?” she asked instead of answering my question.
That brief exchange was a mere prelude to the meal. I dutifully changed clothes, and when I went downstairs to the immaculately set candle-lit table, I was grateful for Leah’s interference with my previously arranged wardrobe.
The meal was nice, but not extravagant. As we sat and enjoyed a leisurely meal, I realized it wasn’t the food that required nice attire. It was the company. As we talked about life and faith and historical figures – with a little Mariners speculation and some good-natured jokes thrown in – I understood why Leah asked me to change my clothes. And why my mother (or father) never had.
Don’t get me wrong. My family is a close-knit group. We love each other and spent lots of time together. But dinner was more about getting our third meal than deepening our family ties. Dinner was simply the last meal before the next day’s breakfast, not the last conversation before the next day’s work.
Leah’s family had established the thoughtful tradition of engaging each other more fully and deeply. It was intentional. From the place settings to the suggested seating, it was designed to foster connection. It truly was a spirited affair, with plenty of fruitful conversation and interchange of ideas and viewpoints. In short, it was a spirited table, and it was facilitated in part by the custom of getting dressed for dinner.
What we wear is a reflection both of self-opinion and event expectation. What we wear to dinner is a form of climate control. The term “black-tie affair” communicates a clear pronouncement of the meal to come. The atmosphere of the room and the behavior of the participants is clearly effected by the choice of clothing.
As I ponder and research the notion of getting dressed for dinner, I will remember that moment with my future wife. What does it mean to get dressed for dinner in various communities around the world? How do cultural customs and clothing intersect with the meal? I believe that our food influences our fashion, and our fashion can influence our food. When we get dressed for dinner, literally and metaphorically, we can expect a more filling and fulfilling meal. And we can certainly expect a more spirited table.