Dress to impress?

Years ago, when I was still at school, I was strong-armed into joining the school public speaking team. This was a rather entertaining activity which involved choosing a topic you wanted to debate, and putting forward a presentation, dealing with questions, chairing the discussion, and all that jazz. We weren’t allowed to debate anything to do with money, politics or religion (so instantly the fun was halved)… but we soon picked up that certain topics had been flogged more times than the proverbial dead horse at such occasions. Among them was the question of school uniforms: the pros and cons, the social benefits, the question of representing your school in public, and so forth.

As far as I could tell back in those distant school days, there were basically three reasons for adhering to a dress code. The first: that it was required (by a school or an employer) and that requirement was enforced in some way by a power structure you had to adhere to. The second: that you liked the dress code and wanted to adhere to it – which was obviously never going to be the case for everyone everywhere. The third: that you felt that you ought to adhere to it for some kind of social reason, often to do with peer pressure, or the perceived nature of the occasion. Which is slippery, of course, because occasions come in all sorts of shades and varieties.

So when it was announced last week that La Scala have, in an effort to maintain a certain kind of dress code for their punters, suggested that anyone who turns up not adhering to it might like to pop round the corner to H&M to buy something more appropriate, my eyes rolled. For a whole list of reasons, in fact. Not least the reaction that this provoked on social media, where a surprising number of people seemed to endorse the idea of dressing in a particularly kind of sober fashion In The Name Of Opera.

Before I get into why I think dress codes at the opera – and more specifically, that this dress code ruling at this opera house – is a bit silly, let me offer three little reminders:

  1. It is 2017. As in, Beethoven has been dead for 190 years. Verdi for over a century. And so on. 2017. Got it?
  2. People stage operas, and put on orchestral concerts, and folk gigs, and comedy shows, and all manner of other events, because they are passionate about those things, they would like other people to enjoy them, and they want to make money on the project (at least enough to break even), ergo, it is helpful if people actually go.
  3. One of the major image problems that classical music still has is that it’s stuffy and elitist. We may wave our hands in protest and tell the judge that we aren’t stuffy and elitist, and look at how cheap the tickets are, and so on. But still, there it is.

Right, back to La Scala. The first thing I found interesting was that the dress code does not say that you have to be smart, or smart-casual, or that you have to respect the musicians by dressing accordingly, or any of the other formulations that one might perhaps expect. What it actually says is: ‘The public is kindly requested to dress in keeping with the decorum of the Theatre, out of respect for the Theatre and for other viewers. People wearing shorts or sleeveless T-shirts will not be allowed inside the auditorium; in this case, tickets will not be reimbursed.’

Man in top hat and tails, 1920s

So let’s consider this. It’s one of the hottest summers in Italy for a number of years. You’re in Milan. You want to go to the opera. Inside, with lots of other humans. And the one thing you can’t do – very specifically can’t do – is wear sleeveless T-shirts or shorts. They could be Armani T-shirts and shorts, and they still wouldn’t let you in. No knees or shoulders to be displayed. That’s what matters.

Technically, I suppose this means you could turn up in a bin bag, provided it covers your shoulders and knees. If it wouldn’t be kind of sticky to do so (and if I actually had a ticket to go to La Scala), I might be tempted to try it just to see what happens. It doesn’t exclude bin bags in the dress code, does it?

Also, the last time I checked, we watch operas in a darkened auditorium. As in, you can’t actually see what the person sitting next to you is wearing anyway. Not least because, also, the last time I checked, you’re supposed to be looking at the STAGE. And what the people on that are wearing. I bet no one told them to go to H&M.

I refer you to my three earlier points. We are, I hope, now sufficiently advanced as a species that we can see bare knees and shoulders without falling into a swoon. We are going to the opera to see the opera, not least because the auditorium is dark so we can’t really see very much else. We like going to the opera. We like opera. We want other people to like opera, and for them to come too – just like the organisers. Because then they’ll make enough money to consider doing it again, and to sustain the venue, and for us to keep going to the opera. Hurrah!

And finally, we don’t want to look like pompous asses. We want to encourage others to come and love the music that we love. Even if they have knees. They too might be wooed by Puccini and Berlioz, Berg and Handel. Plus, they might have spent quite a lot of money to get to Milan, and buy tickets for La Scala. Perhaps the idea that they’re going to get sent away at the door to spend more money buying an outfit, because they’ve bared their shoulders in order to not pass out from overheating, might seem pretty stupid.

If you want to dress up for a night out, whether you’re going to the opera or the bowling alley, I’m delighted for you. But come on now, let’s not be silly about this. At the end of the day, how many people’s experience of La Scala are those few pairs of shorts actually going to ruin? School’s out, people. Sit back and enjoy the music, knees, shoulders and all.

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