Style Essay: The Rise And Fall Of The Dress Code

What a man should wear on a night out has never been more complicated

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From the most exclusive Mayfair clubs to dive bars in New York, dress codes are fragmenting — in some cases disintegrating, in some cases becoming more complex than ever. Jeans are now allowed in the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz in London, and you no longer need a jacket before you can occupy a booth at Wiltons on Jermyn Street.

At the other end of the spectrum, “Trigger” — owner of the Contintental dive bar in Manhattan’s East Village, where five shots of anything are $10 all night — bans anyone wearing overly baggy jeans from his bar, because “the Jersey Shore knuckleheads create all the drama.” But who gets in and who doesn’t is not that simple. “Sometimes, would-be patrons are dressed way over the top and sometimes it’s something subtle they might say, or how they carry themselves.”

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Of course, many older establishments continue to fly the flag for the dress code, like White’s, the men-only gentleman’s club on St James’s Street in London, which first opened in 1693 and remains beloved of the Windsors. Here, the concept of progress sits, unwelcome, somewhere between anachronism and aspic. Change, when it comes, can be disastrous.

Shortly after the late Mark Birley decided to relax the dress code at his Mayfair institution Annabel’s in 2002, he did a U-turn. “Sights of almost Gothic horror appeared nightly,” he wrote in The Spectator afterwards. “I had overlooked the simple truth that the British have no tradition of casual clothes.”

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When new owner Richard Caring took over, he left the dress code in place. Meanwhile, at 5 Hertford Street — the Mayfair club which opened in 2012 and is run by Birley’s son, Robin — the upper classes flock nightly for black cod and a boogie in the basement, suited and booted, according to the rigid dress code. Every member knows that to rock up without a collar or jacket leads to a refusal that will definitely offend.

But Birley’s son has moved with the times. Annabel’s still bans denim, leather or suede, but a pair of Lanvin slim-fit, smart indigo jeans will pass muster at 5 Hertford Street.

Jason Basmajian, former creative director of Gieves & Hawkes, is a cheerleader for the establishment. “Dress codes in clubs are one of the last bastions of civilised behaviour,” he says. “Dressing correctly is as much a part of the experience as the club itself, a place where men might still pull out a chair for a lady at the table, or tip a washroom attendant.”

Basmajian has a point, but it’s probably equally true to say that a lot of otherwise stylish men would welcome the opportunity to wear black cashmere and jeans for a night out, not to mention take a toilet break without having to bring their wallet with them.

And what of individuality? Did we battle our way through the anarchy of Eighties’ street style for nothing? There’s a touch of irony in the fact that the lush, hallucinatory, Fantasia-like decor of 5 Hertford Street’s basement was designed by Rifat Ozbek — famous for collaborating with fashion provocateur Leigh Bowery, and for dragging-up as Diana Vreeland for an edition of Tatler. Bowery and his clan would never have got past the door of 5 Hertford Street. But Ozbek is established now, and moves in different circles.

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Annabel’s and 5 Hertford Street are increasingly rare in their smart dress dictatorial stance; these are the days of “no reservations”, and anything goes — as long as it suits the management and benefits the bottom line. If you turned away anyone wearing Nike Air Max to your negroni-serving pizza joint in Hackney, you’d be out of business. And if you’re running a club in downtown Manhattan and stopping people at the door because they’re wearing Raf Simons sneakers — as they do at the Top of the Standard in the Meatpacking District — you’re thinking like a Romford bouncer. It’s all about context.

Who hasn’t settled down for a four-hour degustation menu with their significant other, only for the tone to be lowered when a group of diners has turned up wearing polo shirts and baseball caps? One may abhor the Gallic shrugs of Parisian waiters, but when punters interpret “formal wear” at Le Grand Véfour as denim and a red checked button-down, they surely deserve some attitude. If the sea scallop starter costs €118, don’t dress for a pie at a football match.

The whole concept of the dress code developed in an attempt to separate what Nancy Mitford termed the U and Non-U. Because you probably don’t want to be sitting down for a Manhattan next to a plumber from Leigh-on-Sea on his stag-do. And he probably doesn’t want to sit next to you. But can you really tell the cut of someone’s jib from the cut of their jacket? (Or if what they’re wearing is even a jacket at all?)

Why can’t all men be trusted to dress well, when there are so many options? Men’s fashion has undergone a revolution in the last 50 years, and drawing a tuxedo-shaped silhouette as a line in the sand seems arbitrary.

You could ease the jacket off a tramp, slip it on and then go out for dinner. Is that better than, say, a Haider Ackermann ruched polo neck and waistcoat? If only there was a way to create a dress code that wasn’t as simplistic as defining an outfit by type rather than quality of style. But that path, of course, leads to the tyrannical nightclub doormen of the Eighties, such as the late Mark Vaultier at Taboo, who held a clipboard in one hand and a mirror in the other, turning to a potential guest and asking, rhetorically: “Would you let yourself in?”

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High fashion and the moneyed, intellectual avant-garde often sit apart from the establishment. “I will never wear a necktie,” says Yohji Yamamoto, the overlord of Omotesandō noir. “Not even for my Emperor.” You could probably trust Yohji — who has a pretty decent wardrobe — not to ruin a wedding photograph, but wealth in itself is no arbiter of taste. Take a look at what the Russians are wearing in the garden of the Principe Di Savoia in Milan, sipping their lattes with dinner (yes, with dinner!). Stretch denim and Swarovski crystals will never be friends.

Google “Eleven Madison Park”, and the first appended search suggestion is “…dress code”, indicating that many visitors to New York’s most critically acclaimed restaurant — where a four-hour, fantastical, Willy Wonka dinner for two in an imposing old Gotham bank involves immersive games, table-side theatrics, making your own pastrami sandwiches and costs $500 — fear rejection at the door. They needn’t.

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“Fine dining restaurants are a dying breed,” believes restaurateur, Eleven Madison Park’s general manager and co-owner Will Guidara. “People have been scared off by things they perceived as stuffy.” Guidara will let staff seat guests in T-shirts and shorts. Anything goes, apart from hats.

“But there’s an exception to that exception,” says Guidara. “Have you ever told a cowboy to take off his hat? It’s not worth it.” Forty blocks north, things aren’t quite so relaxed. Daniel Boulud still insists on jackets at his flagship restaurant, Daniel. “We don’t require a jacket in the lounge,” he says, “but one is required in the dining room and it always will be. It sets a tone and a mood.” Indeed, try taking off your jacket at the 21 Club — another Manhattan behemoth of the starched tablecloth and three-martini lunch — and a waiter may rush over and physically put it back on you, albeit with a cosseting “We wouldn’t want you to catch cold, sir, would we?”

Still, even the 21 Club increasingly allows interpretation these days. “A tailored leather jacket will make it into the dining room today, but it wouldn’t have a decade ago,” says the restaurant’s general manager, Theodore Suric.

Back when shirts and ties were as required as a jacket at the 21 Club, Sammy Davis Jr arrived in a turtleneck and was offered the loan of a cravat. He promptly tied it around his head. Interpretation can thumb a nose at rules and regulations. Restaurateurs Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver are fans of the kind of utilitarian navy blue French workwear that many a modernist architect has adopted as a uniform, as well as dustmen from Marseille to Montmartre.

“I wear my bleu de travail with matching high-waisted trousers,” Gulliver says. “Believe it or not, it’s an acceptable suit under the RAC Club’s gentleman’s dress code.”

Coarse indigo twill may not be what was intended when the club was established, but Henderson and Gulliver both dress with consideration and style. The crucial point is that they look good, and they wear “a look”.

But isn’t it fun to have to really dress up? How many men have a tuxedo in their closet that rarely gets an airing? Perhaps restaurants and clubs could nominate certain days of the week for evenings that demand more effort than usual — as they do at The Point, the old Rockefeller summer camp in the Adirondacks, where Wednesday and Saturday are black-tie nights for guests in residence, and everyone loves it. It’s not too much to ask, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to go. But then… you might be missing out.

“I’d wear a tie if I wanted to go somewhere that insisted upon it,” says Rick Owens, who lives, customarily, in his own-label supersized sportswear. “I’d wear what they want in the same way I wouldn’t want someone to fart in my house. I’m not a purist. I actually like rules. I like classical elements and discipline and tradition. We don’t need to blow everything out of our way that came before.”

The fact is, the general public lacks an innate sense of style, and that’s why dress codes haven’t died out entirely. “I’m so fed up with everyone dressing like they’re getting ready to move furniture,” says Vivienne Westwood’s long-standing milliner, Prudence.

“I think there should be dress codes everywhere. I went to the Uffizi in Florence, and there were tourists in shorts, wearing backpacks. You’re trying to look at all those beautiful paintings, and then you see… that! It’s horrible on the eyes.”

Dress codes save us from ourselves. If people have to be sheep, they may as well be sheep in jackets and shoes. As is often the way, hell is other people.

This article originally appeared in Esquire's Big Black Book

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