Should theatre audiences dress to impress?

The question of what to wear on a night out is one which plagues men and women alike. Most of us have been there, scrutinising ourselves in the mirror while stood in the middle of a room littered with garments that have been tried-on and discarded in the search for the perfect outfit. It’s interesting to me though, that nowadays, people will put more thought into what to wear to a bar or club than a visit to the theatre.

There was a time when theatre was a far more elitist form of entertainment, reserved for the more well-to-do of society, and as such, carried with it an expectation of looking the part. Gentlemen in top hat and tails were accompanied by ladies decked out in glamorous gowns and jewels, dressed in their finery for a night of finery at the theatre, and if someone were to have turned up looking like a member of the Les Mis cast, they’d have been turned away at the door. Times change however. Theatre is accessible to a far wider audience these days and people from every walk of life can get a ticket to a show, with a formal dress code no longer a condition of admittance. In fact, theatres have a more relaxed dress code than many other venues; most bars and clubs won’t admit anyone who turns up in trainers, yet no-one would even bat an eyelid at the guy in Nikes at the theatre. There you’ll see an audience dressed in a wide range of attire, from evening wear to shorts and t-shirts.

There are of course still factors which may influence what people wear to the theatre. Matinee performances are a more relaxed affair than evening performances in terms of attire, for instance, while opening night of a play or musical is likely to inspire people to dress that little bit smarter. Location is also a key factor. The quality of productions aside, the West End undoubtedly carries more prestige than London’s fringe theatre, and audiences at the Union Theatre, Pleasance Theatre, Southwark Playhouse, St James Theatre, and so forth, will be less inclined to dress up than audiences at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Queen’s Theatre, London Palladium, Adelphi Theatre, and so forth. The material is important too. A family show like Matilda or Charlie and The Chocolate Factory will have a greater number of kids in the audience than say, The Book of Mormon or Miss Saigon, subsequently resulting in a more casually-dressed audience – anyone who’s ever attempted to get a young child to wear formal clothes will understand why this is.

Opera does still carry some of that old elitist attitude that has slowly disappeared from the world of musical theatre and plays. Not to the same degree as it once did perhaps, but still, it’s not often you’ll see flip flops on the feet of someone at the opera. Think of opera and an image of suited men and ladies in floor-length gowns and evening gloves probably comes to mind, but even the world of opera is changing in that respect though. A few years ago for instance, the English National Opera (ENO) launched its ‘Undress For Opera’ scheme, which was fronted by Damon Albarn and Terry Gilliam and encouraged people to wear whatever they liked to the opera, in a bid to attract a younger audience and dispel the reputation of being of being an art form that is ‘too stuffy, too posh, too expensive’.

A formal dress code is no longer adhered to in the world of theatre, but a level of common sense is still to be expected. I once witnessed someone turn up at a funeral in baggy combat trousers and an old shirt, looking as though he were about to go on a fishing trip. Permitted, yes. Appropriate, no. The same is true of the theatre. Pretty much any type of attire is allowed…within reason. A theatre-goer turning up in a Cinderella-esque ball gown is going to have a hard time fitting into their seat and will likely have a disappointed walk home in her glass slippers, while anyone who thinks wearing a large, view-obscuring hat that wouldn’t be out of place at Ascot is a good idea will probably be stoned out of their seat. It also goes without saying (I hope) that nudity is not an appropriate form of dress, or undress rather.

Me…I like to adopt a smart/casual dress code when I visit the theatre. Comfort is important of course, as you’re going to be sitting there for a few hours, but you can be just as comfortable in a nice skirt and top as you would be in jeans and a hoody. As far as I see it, the theatre experience is what you make it. Making the effort to look nice and dress smartly adds an extra level of magnitude to the occasion; every visit should be special and clothing should reflect that.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Thursday 23rd April 2015