Photo: Miramax


When it comes to tricky dress codes, the unspoken one is the worst

The season for annoying dress codes has begun and with it comes a whole raft of issues. But the most problematic? The one that you didn’t even know existed, says Laura Craik

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By Laura Craik on

When you have money, you also have something called The Season. The Season (capped up to emphasise its gravitas to the 0.001 per cent of the population to whom it is relevant) runs from March to July, although the rich folk only really start to get excited at the start of May, when Glyndebourne, the Chelsea Flower Show and various polo events kick off. Tatler describes The Season as “the upper-class Disneyland – a green and pleasant theme park to which all are welcome.” Only, they’re not. A more accurate statement would read: “To which all are welcome, provided that they look the part.”

During The Season, looking the part means dressing the part, and dressing the part means… well, I’m not entirely sure. Is anyone entirely sure? Thanks to the popularity of “smart casual”, surely the English lexicon’s most oxymoronic phrase (first encountered down Cinderella Rockerfella’s circa 1989), we all know what a dress code is, in theory. In practice? Not so much. Which is possibly why, whenever I am issued with one, my first instinct is to run for the hills. In sweatpants.

Even if you don’t “do” The Season, it’s nigh-on impossible to avoid the bossy edicts of the dress code during the summer months. An office jolly at the races? There’ll be a dress code for that. Cocktail party? Ditto. But, while black tie/white tie/morning dress/lounge suits/smart casual are vexatious enough, there’s one dress code that perturbs me more than any other, and that’s the unspoken one. Man, but the unspoken dress code is a bastard. Take, for example, the Chelsea Flower Show: no dress code on the website, yet if you turn up in pleather trousers and a boob tube you will soon find out that almost every other woman is in raffia wedges and a floral tea dress.

We all know what a dress code is, in theory. In practice? Not so much. Which is possibly why, whenever I am issued with one, my first instinct is to run for the hills. In sweatpants

The unspoken dress code is the ultimate “what, you didn’t get the memo?” nightmare and, while some occasions simply call for common sense (you don’t need a memo to figure out that it’s not exactly top form to wear a white dress to a wedding), others are far more oblique and fraught.

Earlier this week, the singer Raye accused The Ivy restaurant in Chelsea, London, of “disgusting and blatant prejudice”, after her male friend was refused entry for being too casually clad. In the video she posted on her Instagram account, said friend was wearing a black puffer, a pristine white T-shirt, beige shorts and dark grey trainers and, while he wouldn’t have passed muster at a wedding, most would agree he looked smart enough to be breaking overpriced bread in a fancy restaurant.

Where the “prejudice” came in, according to Raye, was because her female friend had been admitted despite being dressed in a sweatshirt and trainers that, according to the video evidence, looked far more casual than the man’s attire. That her female friend was white and her male friend was black led Raye to call racism on the incident. Whether racist, sexist or both, The Ivy was in the wrong – because its website stipulates that it doesn’t have a dress code. You can’t tell people they’re falling foul of a dress code that doesn’t even exist. Well, you can, but they’re unlikely to want to come back and spend money at your establishment.

That The Ivy has since updated its website to stipulate a “smart casual” dress code would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so sad. “Smart casual” is basically “if your face fits” by another, more nebulous, name; the ultimate get-out clause for an establishment to reject you without reason.

It’s good to dress up sometimes, and no one is saying you should sashay up to The Ivy/the races/the christening of your beloved godchild in a crop top and cut-off jeans. Yet you would think that, in the 21st century, we could relinquish the notion of prescriptive dress codes that strike fear into the heart of people. Have a dress code. Don’t have a dress code. But, please, can we ditch the unspoken ones? Because truly, life’s complicated enough.


Photo: Miramax
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