The problem had a ready (if not easy) solution in the end, a solution so ready as to make it obvious that lots of other people also were having the same problem. The rack was positioned to be the first thing the eye encountered in its first sweep into the boys department at H&M: plain white shirts and plain black pants hanging side by side.
I had detoured on my way back from a business meeting specifically for this. We are in the season for making children slightly presentable for school concerts or assemblies, and that means it is the season for pretending presentable clothes are something normal children naturally should have. For chorus, for instance, our sixth-grade son was supposed to show up in “white button down shirt, black pants, black shoes,” plus a $7 necktie available through the school.
The outfit sounds reasonable, yes. (They meant “button-front,” not “button-down,” as everyone does.) It sounds so reasonable and ordinary that the first few years you get a message like this, you nod along and pretend to yourself that there’s nothing to worry about.
Then the concert or assembly time comes closer and you remember that children don’t wear black pants. Who does? Not sixth-grade boys, not grown men—not unless it’s with a matching black suit jacket, maybe at a funeral. If you put on simple black pants with a simple white shirt, they magically combine to make you a cater waiter. Maybe men wear black pants with merino sweaters, if they’re trying to be “business casual”? But business casual is just like the concert outfit: a mode of dressing no one would ever choose if not for the limits of the rules.
That’s what defines the concert-wear problem: the way the normal-seeming request falls outside the normal range of clothing. It’s like dealing with a business or agency that insists on doing all your paperwork by fax. Here are the instructions for the second-grade chorus concert:
1. White shirts – no design on them
2. Dark skirts or long pants – can be black, navy, dark brown, dark green, maroon – no designs
3. Dark shoes – no sneakers, please. Sandals are OK, but NO flip-flops.
Here is what the second-grader’s wardrobe consists of, because he is a second-grader:
1. Athletic-wear shirts, mostly in grays, blues, and neon greens, with visible logos and designs on them.
2. Track pants or running shorts with running tights, in light or bright colors, with visible logos and designs on them.
The request isn’t always a white shirt. Sometimes for dance performances, it’s just a plain shirt in some specific solid color—no stripes or lettering or designs—which is also not something the child would otherwise wear.
Since the children don’t usually wear these things, every time the winter or spring assembly season arrives, it’s a whole new opportunity to dig out the previous versions and discover how badly outgrown they are. This works out OK for the second-grader, because sooner or later his brothers old clothes end up being his size. He has no black shoes, nor any dress shoes at all, but one of the two pairs stuffed away in a bag on the top shelf turned out to fit him now.
That left the older boy, and the trip to H&M, and the plain shirt-pants combo in its own little display section—as it should have been, since nothing else in the kids department really went along with it. Nobody wants to dress like that.
What if we all stopped pretending they do? The schools could let the children sing their diverse array of holiday songs diversely arrayed in their everyday outfits. Or if uniformity matters, let them have a real uniform. Make the whole outfit out of the $7 necktie—a utility jumpsuit, in a pleasing color.
There are coveralls or disposable jumpsuits at convenient price points already; if school assemblies start wearing them, there will be more options. Would it be absurd to spend the money for an otherwise pointless single-use outfit? Yes, but we’re already doing that. We’re just acting as if the boringness of the impractical clothes makes them actually practical.