There was a time when formal dress was compulsory for the theatre. A time when theatre-goers, especially those in the ‘dress circle’, had to be well-turned out. But nowadays, there are no rules. And, in some ways, this makes it even more difficult to know what to wear.
You don’t have to dress up for the theatre if you don’t want to. That’s the message from the English National Opera, which is trying to entice a whole new audience with its casual “Opera Undressed” nights.
But casual must mean clean, chaps, and it should also mean tidy. It isn’t acceptable to turn up to a theatre performance in filthy, tatty clothes. Even if only for the sake of those sitting within smelling distance.
Your clean ‘dress jeans’ and a freshly-ironed polo shirt or patterned shirt will do just fine. And that’s how you’ll look – fine. You’ll blend nicely into the background. Provided the person you’re accompanying shares a similar lack of sartorial ambition, you’ll be alright. Stand next to a natty dresser and you’ll cut a far shabbier figure.
At the other end of the scale is black tie. These days, black tie is rarely obligatory for the theatre – unless you’re attending a gala evening. Even Glyndebourne states that black tie is “customary” rather than “compulsory”.
But don’t let that stop you from dressing up should the fancy take you. It’s a shame, agrees Italian fashion designer Valentino in an interview with The Guardian, that more of us don’t tux-up for the theatre and make more of an effort.
Traditional black tie comprises a black tuxedo jacket with silk or satin lapels, black tapered trousers, white dress shirt, black tie and shiny, shiny black shoes. A cummerbund is optional.
If you’re going to do black tie properly you need a bona fide hand-tied bow tie. Etiquette expert William Hanson says in The Telegraph:
“Her Majesty the Queen is said to be able to spot a ‘fake’, pre-tied bow tie a mile off.”
Somewhere between these two extremes lies ‘smart casual’. This menswear middle ground is a good option for those of you who like to dress to impress but baulk at the prospect of a cummerbund.
While there’s plenty of room for creativity, it’s all too easy to get smart casual wrong. For best effect, team dark suit trousers or immaculate dark jeans (never stone-washed or ripped jeans) with a blazer and a plain shirt. You can add some pizzazz with your choice of tie and by swapping your office brogues for a mean pair of Chelsea boots.
We think there’s only one rule when it comes to dressing for the theatre: wear whatever you feel great in. Follow that philosophy, and you can’t go wrong.