Dressing Down: How Casual Is Too Casual?

Formal Audience - The Producers
A formally-dressed theater audience of yesteryear, as represented in The Producers. / via

Do people still use the term “dressing up”?

It only occurred to me recently that I hadn’t heard it in a while. Maybe even more to the point, I haven’t seen it represented on the streets.

Story continues below.

elegant theater
Artist’s Conception of what it used to mean to dress for the theater
Robert and George Cruikshank, Tom & Jerry in the Saloon at Covent Garden, 1820-1821 / via
(Click to enlarge.)

Oh, sure, celebrities dress up for red-carpet premieres and awards shows so that Joan Rivers can gush over and/or trash whatever drag they’ve got on.

But even that form of dress-up has its embarrassing aspects these days. When Anna Wintour had the effrontery to ask gents to wear white tie and tails to her annual May gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she caught many of them with their pants down, so to speak. More than a few invitees didn’t have those ensembles in their wardrobes. Not a Fred Astaire think-alike among them. They either had to rent them—which wasn’t easy—or fall back on tuxedos. Many of those in black tie even arrived in blue (yuck!) jackets.

But celebrity galas aren’t the point here: It’s what everyone else, including celebrities, chooses to wear when there’s no red carpet under foot. Nowadays, we ought to be asking: Who and how many ever think about dressing up as people once did, as society took for granted not so long ago?

I’m always looking around, and it seems like the answer is: almost no one. My latest case in point: I spend a great deal of time going to the theater. Passing among the cluster of Broadway theaters near Times Square, I often see many eager audiences at a go, filing into or out of their shows and just bout all of them dressed down.

There was a time when people dressed up for the theater. Going to the theater was an event, an occasion. It was the rare theater-going man who wouldn’t wear a suit and tie. It was the rare theater-going woman who wouldn’t wear a dress, a hat, gloves. Hence the old request, “Excuse me, Madam, but would you remove your hat?” This isn’t even to mention opening nights when white tie or black tie were customary for men (see above) and evening gowns and furs were customary for woman.

To give some idea of how things were, here’s Emily Post writing in 1922 about opera dress: “A gentleman must always be in full dress, tail coat, white waistcoat, white gloves whether he is seated in the orchestra or a box. He wears white nowhere else except at a ball or when usher at a wedding.”

Here’s some supposedly up-to-date advice about proper attire for the theater I found in a random online search:

Story continues below.

Dress up for Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening performances, wearing any style in the range from cocktails to formal wear. Nicer business and cocktail attire suffice for weeknight performances, while matinees are much more casual.


Wearing jeans has its champions and naysayers when broaching theater attire. While the anti-jeans group believes denim shows a lack of respect for the theater, the pro-jeans group maintains that paying $195 for a ticket allows you to dress any way you want. The truth is, during hot summer months, jeans and shorts are seen as often as slacks for weeknight and matinee performances.

Formal Audience - The Producers
A formally-dressed theater audience of yesteryear, as represented in The Producers. / via

You can say that again about the Broadway crowds I regularly encounter, in which there are definitely far more pro-jeans campers than anti-jeans campers. Whereas few to none opt for the “nicer business and cocktail attire,” I probably see several hundred people on any given evening wearing what might be termed casual clothes by anyone putting the best possible face on it.

“Knockabout” could be another way to describe it, but the most accurate description of what people heading to Bullets Over Broadway, Matilda and others is Anything Goes. People are wearing whatever they would wear to lounge around the house, barbecue in the backyard, shop in their nearest supermarket, cart refuse to the city dump.

Story continues below.

It may sound as if I’m saying this is wrong. I’m not. (Or at least I’m trying hard not to say as much.) To some extent, I agree with the remark about earning the right to wear anything a person wants after paying the outrageous ticket prices.

What I’m really getting at is that whereas once there were events and occasions for which people dressed, there no longer are—and not just theater but, say, going to church or synagogue, attending funerals. Where, for instance, matinees were once the province of carefully outfitted blue-haired ladies, they’re currently a theater bloc of the past. In many quarters, dressing now is regarded as a laissez-faire affair.

It comes down to times having changed, to attitudes having changed. There’s something here inextricably related to the class system and how it’s altered. At one time theatergoers were mostly members of the upper class, or of the middle class who wanted to demonstrate to the upper class that they knew what was expected. Members of the lower class had their “Sunday best,” which they couldn’t afford to wear on other days of the week.

These parameters don’t obtain so much anymore. Things have shifted. Although there’s a good deal written these early 21st-century years about the disappearance of the middle class, the streets are looking more like the domain of a classless society, and I’m not certain I don’t mean “classless” in two senses of the word.

Story continues below.

While that may not be demonstrably so, it still can look as if the classes have merged. Consequently, this can be a legitimate cause for concern. Because we’re undeniably living in a dumbed-down society, a person can begin to think that the dressing-way-down appearance reflects a dressed-way-down mental state, a condition where “casual” dressing or thinking is threatening to descend into “utterly careless.”

Story continues below.

So let’s end on a hopeful note. I said earlier that in today’s audiences I see few in “nicer business attire.” There are exceptions. During my most recent trip to the theater, there was one lad who appeared to be in his early 20s wearing a robin’s-egg-blue suit with an open-collared pink shirt. He looked quite dapper and, at the same time, the kind of casual that is—pun intended—suitable.

Perhaps he was only an anomaly, but I’m going to think of him as a harbinger.

Story continues below.