With Oscars in the air, my husband and I recently ventured into the wide world to sample an award-nominated film. Minus our toddler, I felt every bit the academic yet kittenish female, circa 1949, my ensemble reflecting the mid-century setting of the film: A-line buffalo plaid skirt, topped with a black boiled wool wrap sweater, loafers and a little black hat atop my large but happy head. A well-turned out couple, we selected a pair of seats near the aisle.

Again and again, hoards of moviegoers succeed in ruining rare but treasured cinematic experiences, and a certain lack of style lies at the bottom of this chattering epidemic.

Amid noise of scritchy ski jackets, pre-movie chatter, rattling cellophane and crunching of snacks, we sank into our theatrical thrones, my hand tucked cozily inside his, as the film began. Our reverie was soon broken, though, when we were forced to stand in order to make room for a pair of latecomers, choosing the seats directly next to me and gesturing impatiently as I scrambled to make space.

"This is unspeakably rude," I hissed under my breath, snatching handbag, swing coat and stylish little hat, to make room for their warm-up suit-wearing bottoms. "Maybe we should move," I whispered to my husband, gesturing to the rows of vacant seats that stretched before us. "No, no," he said. "Just relax." But I couldn"t relax.

My neighbors proceeded to guffaw, exchanging comments over the dialogue as they passed a barrel of popcorn between them. They plunged into its depths and stuffed their mouths while, beside them, I grew so tense that the hand my husband clutched could have shattered like icicles if he so much as squeezed it. I huffed and puffed in these people's direction, edging away from them, hoping my body language would communicate how strongly I disapproved of their presence.

Finally, after another bout of fidgeting and whispering, the man handed the bottomless trough of popcorn to his partner and turned toward me, sheepishly saying, "You're going to kill me but I GOTTA GO." Sighing loudly, I collected my possessions and stepped into the aisle to make room for his exit, then slipped into the unoccupied front row. After musing a bit about which would be the right thing to do, my husband moved into the seat next to me, where we were finally able to enjoy the rest of the movie in peace.

But peaceful movie or not, the experience sent me reeling into a soulful lament, mourning the passing of conscious style. Had the disruptive pair only put some thought into what they wore that day, I'm convinced they would have been better behaved. I feel it my duty to point out that where there's style there's often grace, and with grace comes an uncanny inability to offend in word, deed or appearance. After all, even chatty girls like me have the capacity to become stone silent as soon as a movie's overture begins, showing such restraint till well after the final credits fade.

Knowing this, it should follow that others not as blessed with the ability to weave such witty repartee as yours truly couldn't possibly have anything to say that could be more important than the drama unfolding onscreen. Yet again and again, hoards of moviegoers succeed in ruining rare but treasured cinematic experiences, and a certain lack of style lies at the bottom of this chattering epidemic. In the age of DVDs, SUVs and home theaters, the world at large has become an extension of the living room.

In my mind, if one hasn't the social sense to determine that loungewear along the lines of stained T-shirts and sweat suits isn't appropriate for public viewing, it seems nearly impossible to expect this same population to understand that movie-watching behavior differs somewhat when lifted from the depths of a La-Z-Boy recliner in a wood paneled rec room.

After attending his alma mater's commencement ceremony, New York Times columnist Bob Morris shared my lament. Turning up for the occasion in a "sleek, purple Jil Sander suit," he observed his fellow alumna joining the graduate procession, dressed not in their Sunday best but in what appeared to be their favorite camping gear. Pondering the need for his peers to "compliment their SUVs with flood-ready river shoes and trek-ready jackets," he summed up his complaints, quoting a concierge at a fine New York Hotel: "Outside of New York, this is a nation of people in pajamas." (The New York Times, Sunday June 2, 2002)

Somewhere between come-as-you-are church services and casual Fridays, Americans lost sight of what it means to look nice. I know I should applaud the advent of a more comfortable lifestyle and I'm thankful I don't have to go through life wrapped in the barbed wire constraints of a laced and boned girdle. Style in decades past was known to put a damper on other people's fun, too; a beehive or bouffant hairdo created a hindrance for anyone seated behind a lady sporting one of these festive coifs in the 1960s. But there is something to be said for people who put some effort into their appearance. To people who view movie-going seriously, the theater is a place not only to see, but to be seen - an event worthy of a fresh coat of mascara and a clean turtleneck at the very least.


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