Had George Washington joined me outside a Chili's at Chicago's O'Hare Airport recently, he would have shuddered at the sight. There, a nation of slobs paraded through the crossroads of America. Frayed denim hems swept the filthy floor. Cleavage poured out of T-shirts bearing vulgar messages. Big bellies flowed over the waists of jeans. Mature women waddled in stained sweat suits. Some passersby stuffed their mouths with pizza as they walked.
Washington was a stickler for good manners, and that included dignified dress. As a youth, he hand-copied a text called "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." They included: "Wear not your Cloths, foul . . . or Dusty but See they be Brush'd once every day at least and take heed that you approach not to any Uncleaness."
Some observers suspect that a collapse in grooming and attention to dress has contributed to the decline in civility on our streets and in our politics. People don't care what they look like in public, because they don't care about the public. They have little notion of, or interest in, playing a supportive role in their civilization.
Digital technology has no doubt made many feel divorced from a larger community. Movies that were seen in crowded theaters are privately consumed at home. Socializing happens online. Some may view self-presentation as a pointless concern.
Many dress carefully for important events, such as weddings and funerals. But they regard a planeload of strangers as nobodies for whom they don't have to change out of a sweatshirt. People wear shorts and flip-flops to church. Some don't even dress up for the most solemn of occasions. Funeral-home directors note an increase in visitors perfectly outfitted for a barbecue.
Dress codes have collapsed at all but a handful of upscale restaurants. The proprietors create an atmosphere of elegance and romance only to see it populated by people dressed for mowing a lawn.
As the Chicago chef Charlie Trotter told the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago, "I call it the casualization of America, and it's a grim scene."
New York remains the most formal city, say proprietors of fancy dining establishments, and the degree of dressing-down rises the farther one moves west. This trend hits bottom in some of California's richest enclaves. Hollywood moguls and Silicon Valley tycoons seem to revel in visiting the most expensive locales wearing baseball caps on backwards.
Whereas the old Hollywood would pour on the jewels and fine silks to impress, the new Hollywood dresses sloppily to say, "I'm so important, I don't have to make the smallest effort on your behalf."
But do not confuse the jogging pants and dirty sneakers with any interest in making common cause with the masses. The movie stars in the undershirts are nonetheless driving Porsches and living in 20-room mansions. Their wealth is not left in doubt.
A friend in Omaha has noted the phenomenon where young women doll up for a date, while the young men with them look like total slobs. It's a sad commentary on modern relationships.
We must concede that this is a big country with different expectations for proper attire. One person's ostentation may be another's good manners. But a modicum of care in dress and grooming would seem a basic minimum just about everywhere - or it used to be. Cowboys might get muddy on the job, but they were clean and pressed for the Saturday night dance.
It seems that the richer this country gets, the more slovenly people have become. It's a grim scene, all right.