theatre-drag-tn

My Dress Code for Attending New York Theater

Typical examples of my New York theater drag, going from dressier on the left to more casual on the right.
Typical examples of my New York theater drag, going from dressier on the left to more casual on the right.

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:

Broadway
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
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.

16 thoughts on “My Dress Code for Attending New York Theater”

  1. well put, George. You’ve inspired me yo go BACK to my former “one dresses up for the theatre” mindset, which I have let slacken.

  2. You *are* a snob. I used to be like you. As much as I appreciate a well-dressed person, we all have our own ideas of what “well-dressed” even means, and as such it’s pretty pointless to judge people based on our own personal ideals.

    When you go to the theater, you are sitting in the dark. The focus is not on you. If you choose to dress up out of respect, that’s your prerogative, but me? I choose to judge people on their character, not their appearance. Superficial prejudice is less respectful than a tshirt and jeans.

    1. It’s a matter of etiquette and like he said respect. This has nothing to do with character, which I also in regular life don’t base upon clothes. In this situation however, you dress up nicely because that’s what you do when visiting a classic formal setting, it goes back many centuries. Similar things like opening the door for a lady before a restaurant, walking into a pub before a lady, holding a wine glass by the stem, eating with a knife and a fork, etc etc.

  3. Good for you, George. How we choose to dress says as much about what we think of the people around us as it does of ourselves. We’re losing a valuable sense of occasion in favor of our seemingly inalienable right to be “comfortable” at all times. That, sadly, is a losing bargain.

  4. Now some believe that the time of day of the occasion or the section seats will also dictate the level of dress. What do you say, what would your suggestion be for the MET on a weekday evening?

  5. We are going to an art opening in New York City and what kind of suit is appropriate for a man? A black suit? Pin stripped? Is a “little black dress” appropriate for a woman? Any guidance is appreciated. Thank you.

    1. Hi, Irene. A black suit is absolutely appropriate for an art opening. Aside from pallbearers, limo drivers, luxury department store security guards and Tom Ford, participants and celebrants in the arts can also wear black suits well. Not sure if a tie is necessary (depends on the venue, the occasion and what you know about the artist/the work/etc.). The one thing that separates one suit from most others worn in the U.S. is tailoring. (See How I Like a Jacket to Fit.) Dress it up and make a statement with a good tie, shirt, cufflinks or socks, but don’t steal focus. The artwork and it’s creator are the star on this particular evening.

  6. would a suit be too overdressed for a sunday matinee? i’m taking my wife to the st james for her birthday as she’s always wanted to go see broadway show. thanks in advance!

    1. Vince, thank you so much for your question. And a good question it is, since Sunday definitely has a more casual feel to the day. I would wear a suit. It sounds like a big occasion, being your wife’s first Broadway show. Make an occasion out of it. I wear a suit for every Broadway show and it always makes it feel more special. Since it is a Sunday matinee, though, I think a tie could be optional. However you go with the tie, do wear a nice pressed dress shirt. It’s a nice occasion. Make it that much nicer and have fun!

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