Scrolling through Twitter recently, I was surprised to read a tweet from Lumiere, one of Cheltenham’s most favoured restaurants. They were understandably confused by a recent TripAdvisor review criticising their dress code; it turns out that even when the food is on point, someone else’s choice of clothing can ruin your meal.
This sparked a little bit of debate on the Twittersphere but the general consensus was that nobody really cares about other guest’s attire. That got me thinking…has the dress code had its day?
Here are 5 reasons why the dress code might be nearing extinction:
(1) Eating out is no longer a special occasion
If my mother is to be believed, getting an extra slice of meat with your Sunday roast or a weekly bag of crisps used to be considered a treat. Going back further still, my grandparents grew up on roast onions, sugar sandwiches (sounds good but it really isn’t great!), and the odd turnip purloined from a farmer’s field. By comparison, one can only imagine a meal out would have been rather like a trip to the moon.
It’s perhaps understandable then that people would have donned their glad rags before heading out; a room full of shiny shoes, regimental ties and sparkly cocktail dresses certainly adds a sense of occasion. Nowadays, eating out is barely considered a treat at all. Typically, Sarah and I manage at least once a week but can often exceed that. With the proliferation of decent restaurants and our busy lifestyles, we rarely plan our meals out, preferring spontaneity and convenience. Whilst we will occasionally make an extra special effort, you’ll usually find us closer to the casual end of the spectrum, having rushed straight from work or a trip to town.
(2) Clothes are no longer cut from the same cloth
In case you are mistaken, I’ll make it clear up front that I am hardly a trendsetter. I’m by no means a square but I still can’t quite grasp jeans with holes in. Particularly when they cost 5 times more than my 100% intact jeans. This makes dress codes somewhat problematic; where historically they would have helped maintain a certain class of clientele, the fashion scale no longer runs from string vest to formal suit.
How can restaurants draw such a scale when designer clothes appear to have been designed in space then savaged by a particularly vicious cat, whilst Primark simultaneously weave the cheapest polyester into a perfectly presentable dress? Good food should no longer be the preserve of high society and thanks to societal norms, clothing’s role as the gatekeeper is largely over.
(3) Fine food no longer has to mean fine dining
In the near past, most towns would have only had a few proper places to eat out. If you were lucky you might have even had a “good” and “bad” Italian. Michelin starred dining would have been confined to the big cities but at least you would have somewhere worth getting dressed up for. Somewhere where the dress code wasn’t restricted to just the diners; flowing white tablecloths, smartly dressed waiters and soft candlelit tables were de rigeur. Clothes might make the man but dressing most certainly would have made the restaurant.
Fast forward to the present day and you can barely walk 10 paces without stumbling across a restaurant. Some good, some bad, plenty inbetween. This recent article on the Bristol restaurant scene even ponderered whether there are already too many to be sustainable.
Just a brief glance though will tell you that, good or bad, they are all very different. Just as fashions have changed, so have appetites. Some of the best meals in town come courtesy of dirty burgers, artistic vegan masterpieces and vibrant, colourful street food.
Surrounded by trendy hipsters, industrial chic and sharing platters, the world suddenly seems rather less formal. That isn’t to say that formal dining has been lost; it absolutely still has a place, but it’s having to share the eating out platform with its casually dressed young contemporaries.
(4) Conformity is so last century
It’s an undeniable fact that people love to be comfy. In years gone by, that warm, fuzzy feeling may well have come from the dress code comfort blanket; a cast iron guarantee that you would blend perfectly into the crowd. Sure, you had your finest silk dress on but so did everyone else in the room. As a show of daring, you might have chosen a bold new colour but, by and large, you looked and felt like you belonged.
Times change though. Particularly for the younger generations, where expressions of individuality are a way of life. Where dressing to a perceived standard to satisfy others lies somewhere between a tiresome chore and an attack on personal freedom. Rather than enjoying a relaxing meal out, their constricting collars are anxiously pried away from sweaty necks.
Provided that your outfit is not offensive or wildly inappropriate, surely you should be free to enjoy the meal you’ve paid for, safe from the disapproving glances of others?
That said, there are certain environments in which you should conform. Having splashed out on a swanky meal at one of Britain’s great institutions; let’s push the boat out and say afternoon tea at The Ritz, you should absolutely be expected to make an effort. You’ve paid for pomp and ceremony, and the illusion should not be ruined by a pair of neon Crocs or a vibrant Hawaiian shirt.
I’d also implore everyone to leave their hats at the door. No matter how much it complements your outfit, pork pies belong at picnics. The same goes for mankinis; whilst eating, the only meat and veg I want to see are on my plate.
(5) Girls (and boys!) just want to have fun
You might have noticed that I’m not one for using 5 words when 10 will do. If I were though, I might summarise the last 4 reasons simply as “food should be fun”. Whether you’re accustomed to caviar or like to get down and dirty with sticky ribs and a meltingly good burger, it’s your hard earned money that you’re spending and you should get to choose what you wear whilst doing it.
The societal changes I talked about earlier have done wonders for the world of eating out. A good meal is no longer for the select few and it is no longer offered by the select few. If we want to keep innovative food offerings coming, restaurants for the most part need to maintain a fun and relaxed atmosphere so that people want to come back. So that they want to visit with friends.
Sitting opposite someone who has abandoned their tie and unfastened a top button is sacrifice I’m willing to make if it means that I get to enjoy awesome food. Who knows, if you join them, you might have a better time too!
Lumiere’s Dress Code
In Lumiere’s case, their dress code is that most subtle of guiding touches; “smart casual”. It is intended neither as a doorman to halt the working classes nor as an attempt at encouraging conformity. It is simply a reminder that you are in the company of others and might wish to make some effort at being presentable.
Personally I favour a tweed jacket and my “going out” jeans. Lumiere can’t recall anything remotely approaching offensive being worn on the night in question. One can only assume that their reviewer was sadly intolerant towards anything remotely approaching different.
Luckily they remain a minority. Whilst dress codes will always have a specific place and there will always be things you should never wear to dinner (or perhaps at all), you can sleep tight knowing that a decent meal will always be waiting for you somewhere, no matter what you wear. You won’t even get a dressing down.