What Happened to Dressing for the Theater?

Sponsored by: The Gaillard Center

"Excepting a religious ceremonial, there is no occasion where greater dignity of manner is required of ladies and gentlemen both, than in occupying a box at the opera." So said Emily Post, that bastion of good etiquette. In fact, in 1922 she had quite a bit of advice for ladies and gentlemen who were attending the opera or a theater performance.

On the matter of dressing for the theater, Emily wrote, "At the evening performance in New York a lady wears a dinner dress; a gentleman a dinner coat, often called a Tuxedo. ... A lady in a ball dress and many jewels should avoid elaborate hair ornamentation and must keep her wrap, or at least a sufficiently opaque scarf, about her shoulders to avoid attracting people's attention. A gentleman in full dress is not conspicuous."

Oh, Emily, how times have changed. And, in fact, it's a bit dismaying that they have. For decades, people dressed in their finest for theater performances, symphony concerts and the opera. These outings were major social events that required tuxedos for the men and full-length gowns, gloves and a fur stole for the women. This wasn't a toss-on-any-old-thing affair. It was time to see and be seen, and people wanted to be seen in their very best.

Today, the Internet is filled with articles on theater etiquette and what to wear and, alas, it seems gone is the formality of yesteryear.

Take this piece "What to Wear to the Theatre" on ehow.com: "Select business formal or cocktail attire for evening events. Men should wear slacks with ties or blazers, while women can wear cocktail dresses or pantsuits. Khaki pants with polo shirts are generally considered business casual and are acceptable at most events."

The article points out that jeans are becoming more common but that flip-flops are still frowned up (clearly these folks have never been to Charleston).

But Khakis? Polo shirts? Jeans? Emily Post would never go for that. But is there a happy medium?

Megan Brandle, a personal stylist with Best Kept Self here in Charleston, says women can't go wrong with a cocktail dress and some fun shoes. Men can opt for dress pants and a fun button-up shirt or maybe a patterned bowtie for extra Charleston flair. In the winter, a knee-length (or longer) lightweight coat works well.

And, for a summertime show, select light fabrics like linen or cotton because no one wants to see you sweat at the theater. Brandle said women can even add a fun summer hat to their ensemble.

But even she bemoaned the bygone days of getting dressed up for the theater. "I would love that," Brandle said. "It's fun. It should be an event like it used to be."

With the opening next year of the new Gaillard Center could this be Charleston's opportunity to bring back full-length gloves and top hats? Brandle suggests theme nights at the theater, such as a Gatsby theme so everyone dresses for the period and no one feels out of place in a ball gown.

She may be on to something. You may want to start shopping now for opening night and what could be the start of a new trend.