It’s no news that our culture’s sense of occasion is in a complete free fall, heaving a death rattle as it spirals to the ground. In his now legendary New Rules rant against the ubiquity of Crocs, a mode of rubber footwear once exclusive to children and mental patients, Bill Maher observes that “we’re a nation of slobs who won’t be happy until we can go to the mall in a diaper.”
Furthering this quest to dress as casually and comfortably as humanly possible, Broadway theatergoers have taken to attending America’s highest level of theater arts dressed as if they’re attending the school play or, worse, a ball game. These are often the same folk who come to the theatre fully-equipped with “Man Cave Manners” like unmodulated talking, texting, adolescent ringtones and other unrestrained customs one encounters in living rooms in Akron.
Brand me a snob when it comes to this subject. Many have. But it’s certainly not about showing off expensive clothes. I don’t really have any anyway. (Even if I did, flaunting luxury labels would be a sign that I’d lost faith in my more formidable assets.) No. This is about respect. If showing up looking my best out of respect for myself and respect for the people, places and things for whom I’m stepping out makes me a snob, I’ll take it as a compliment.
Here’s my code:
When I get dressed for a Broadway theater or a regular non-opening-night performance at the opera or the ballet, my code is simple: suit and tie. Broadway, as I said, is as high as it gets when it comes to plays and musicals. And as far as the venue, Broadway houses are among the most glorious spaces in the city. They practically demand “Dress up for me. I dressed up for you.” Wear sneakers, and the grand interior of a beautiful Broadway theater silently mocks you. I don’t care if I’m seeing Spiderman: Turn Off This Show or whatever it’s called. I put forth my best out of respect for the stage, the craft, the theater, my fellow theatergoers and the performers, who happen to be among the best in the field, busting their asses and also putting forth their best for us. For an opening night for one of the finer performing arts at the Metropolitan Opera House or New York City Ballet, I’d wear black tie.
Off-Broadway is not as formal, but still an occasion for which to show respect. I will often stick with the tried and true suit and tie, but I may often go without a tie, depending on the venue. For example, there is something about spaces like the Public Theater, the Beacon Theater or Brooklyn Academy of Music that inspires an awe like that of Broadway theaters. Places like these are suit and tie for me. But the Signature Theater or the Lucille Lortel suggest a more casual feel for which I might forgo a tie.
Off-Off and Beyond
Going further Off-Broadway into the Off-Off territory, I will either lose the tie or stick with the tie while wearing a jacket with good jeans and good shoes. If I’m seeing a workshop or showcase in a very casual theater setting, I usually stick with good jeans or chinos, a decent shirt and a jacket. I might even sport a pair of Chuck Taylors or Jack Purcells when attending a Fringe Festival show. The only constant is a jacket, which is the perfect place to stow the iPhone, business cards, a pen, a hanky, gum or cigarettes.
So there you have my subconscious New York theater dress code (which I hadn’t really thought about until I sat down and wrote this). It is, again, a matter of respect for me, not showing off. Beyond that, it’s a matter of adding a sense of occasion to the show, to the evening and to life in general. It’s a simple adjustment that makes the ordinary extraordinary. I’ve often met friends at a Broadway theater in my suit and tie while they’re casually clad in sweaters, khakis and casual shoes. “Wow, you’re so dressed up” is the almost invariable response. I would rather be dressed-up, which is infinitely more comfortable than being underdressed. And I have enough experience to know that, when one is dressed well, people treat you differently, i.e. better.