What to wear to the theatre

theatre audience in grand theatre

What’s the dress code for the dress circle these days?
Image source: Vlah Dumitru

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 is there still a dress code for the theatre? It seems that nowadays, there are no rules. And, in some ways, this makes it even more difficult to know what to wear. 

Though there’s no set code it’s important to look like you’ve put the effort in. A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t wear it to a nice restaurant it’s probably too scruffy for the theatre stalls. That means no ripped jeans, shorts, or, heaven forbid, flip flops. Consider swapping the jeans for a smart chino, and ditch the comfy fleece for a sharp dress coat or jacket.

Casual wear

casual hoody man leaning on wall

It’s cool and comfortable – but is there such a thing as too casual?
Image source: Shutterstock

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.

Black tie

man in black tie dress in a fancy house

It’s a shame you don’t get to look dashing in black tie more often.
Image source: Samuel Windsor

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.”

Smart casual

smart casual

An informal but well-presented look.
Image source: Samuel Windsor

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.

Feel great

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.

Are you heading to the theatre this winter? What will you be wearing? Let us know in the comments below or over on our Facebook page.


Posted in What to wear guides.