Slobs and Boors Signal Death of Civility

Sometime in the early 1980s, when David Patrick Columbia was working as a writer in Hollywood, actor Bill Cosby started an alarming trend that defied the industry's longstanding culture of formality.

Cosby — at the height of his popularity as Cliff Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" — walked on a Hollywood set in a pair of Nike sneakers. Before long, everyone followed suit.

"In the old days of movies, every man went to work in a jacket and tie and he didn't walk into the studio if he didn't have a hat on," said Columbia, editor and co-founder of the New York Social Diary, which chronicles the city's elite.

"Cosby was big star, and within a month the director was wearing them," said Columbia, now 66. "In six months, the assistant director and the script girl were wearing them. Now everyone all over the world is. One man with authority and position changed the costume."

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Slowly, over several decades, Americans have been dropping their dress codes in the workplace, honorifics in the classroom and now capital letters in their e-mails. Today, formality and civility seem be the ugly step-sisters of a bygone age.

When Did Formality End?

"I don't know when it changed, but there is a complete lack of formality today, and it's a strange phenomenon," said Columbia, who claims that today only two fancy restaurants in New York City still require a coat and tie — La Grenouille and the "21" club.

"People look like slobs and they don't seem to care or have any consciousness about it," he said. As a society, "we are seriously undisciplined."

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Tattered jeans hung low, mini-skirts with muffin tops, shirts untucked and overweight women bulging out of short-shorts are a common sight in the most exclusive settings. And that doesn't touch on the greasy, unwashed hair common among young hipsters and the visible "crack" above baggy trousers worn by rapper wannabes.

"The standards have changed for sure," said Anna Post, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, the doyenne of modern courtesy. "Dress-down Fridays, weddings barefoot on the beach and people going to church dressed like they are going to mow the lawn."

Casual Friday has morphed into casual anytime at Broadway shows, high-end restaurants and almost every public venue. In some of the New York's finest eateries, Columbia has seen people "weighing 300 pounds in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts that don't fit. They are revolting."

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The work place, weddings, even churches now cater to the casual look. On Sundays, Catholic churches that once required ladies to cover their heads and wear white gloves now cater to parishioners in all forms of dress, from beachwear to pajama bottoms.

"There is no law against it, but when you get dressed, you make a choice, in part, about how people are going to react to you," said Post, who with two generations of her family works for the Burlington, Vt.-based Emily Post Institute.

And clothes are just the beginning.

Who decided it was time for children to call their teachers by their first names? And when did the thank-you note go the way of the Dodo bird?

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