Dressing up, dressing down

For the apparel oft proclaims the man

It has long struck me that this is one of the very few pieces of sensible advice that that pompous windbag Polonius gives to his son. For, shallow and superficial though it may be, we do judge people by their appearance. But what Polonius does not seem to realise is that it is not just the question of what one wears. Or, if you prefer, it ain’t what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it. Take me, for instance. I could be dressed up to the nines – the smartest suit, the most dignified silk tie, matching handkerchief peeping discreetly out of my breast pocket – and still look like a sack of potatoes. ’Twas ever thus. It was this innate inability to make the best of my clothes that nipped in the bud what may otherwise have been a promising career as a male fashion model.

Here, as evidence, is a picture taken from our holiday in Sicily some three years ago. There I was, not wearing the shorts and tee shirt that I believe are generally considered de rigueur on such holidays, but sporting instead a jacket, a shirt with collar and buttons, and a pair of trousers made of some material other than denim. And yet, far from looking smart, I look as dilapidated as the ruins behind me, and considerably less dignified.


“Were you not hot and uncomfortable?” I am asked. Well, no. Although it was bright and sunny, this picture was taken in October, and the weather was mild. Also, it’s a very light jacket: I certainly found it, and find it still (much to the despair of my wife), very comfortable to wear. It’s what is termed “leisurewear”, or even “comfort wear”, that I find uncomfortable. I find jeans heavy and awkward, and the texture of denim unpleasantly rough and abrasive; and shirts without buttons are rarely flattering to a middle-age paunch. After all, even a sack of potatoes, I feel, is entitled at least to some remaining vestiges of vanity. And quite apart from the aesthetics of it all, there are the practicalities: I never know where to put the various things I have always to carry around with me – keys, wallet, phone, comb, a paperback to read while waiting for the bus – if I am not wearing a jacket. (A recent advert on television for some credit card featured, for reasons that now escape me, a nude man running down the street, and I could not help wondering – albeit momentarily – where exactly he kept his credit card.) The tie, in keeping with the tenor of our times, I have reluctantly forgone, but this does leave me not knowing what to wipe my glasses with.

Another advantage of wearing a jacket and a shirt with collar is that for those occasions where one does need to dress up, one need make no extra effort. Perhaps change one’s usual jacket for a nicer one, and put on a tie – but that’s about it. After all, why make that extra effort when you know you’re going to end up looking like that sack of potatoes no matter what you do? Nonetheless, when I go to the opera, say, I do wear a jacket and tie. Or a decent jacket, at least. I realise that this is very stuffy and elitist of me: when one goes to the opera, especially when one goes to the opera, one really should wear “comfort wear”, if only to demonstrate how unstuffy and un-elitist one is. One should wear “comfort wear” even if one happens, as I do, not to find it very comfortable. Those who do not go to the opera, and imagine the auditorium to be populated by ladies in tiaras and gentlemen in tuxedos, are likely to be somewhat surprised were they actually to go and see for themselves.

However, formal wear has not gone completely out of fashion. If, at work, I am to meet with customers, I am still expected to wear a smart jacket and tie. Or, preferrably, a suit. Everyone will dress smartly when going for a job interview, say; and prospective employers still tend to favour those applicants who have taken the trouble to dress formally rather than those sporting “leisurewear”. Irrational, I know, but, in our perceptions at least, apparel still proclaims the man. We will all wear our best clothes – and for men, that means jacket and tie – to a wedding, say, or to friends’ silver wedding anniversary at some swanky hotel: we would feel it disrespectful to go to such events in jeans and tee shirt. It is only when it comes to theatre and opera that we feel the need to exhibit how “unstuffy” we really are.

I can’t help thinking that this is because those of us who love opera have become overly sensitive to the allegations of “elitism” and “stuffiness” that are incessantly levelled at us. And that’s hardly any wonder. If we are constantly attacked and ridiculed simply for loving that which is dear to us, extreme sensitivity is only to be expected. The prices for classical music, we are told, are unaffordable. No matter how often you point out that a quick browse around the net indicates classical concerts to be no more expensive on average than rock concerts, and often considerably cheaper, these same allegation will resurface – over and bloody over again. Operas, admittedly, can be expensive, but then, so are West End musicals, which are never described as “elitist” or “stuffy”. And when I am told that opera is unaffordable by people who, almost in the next breath, tell me how much they paid for, say, a Beyoncé concert – some price I would never consider spending for a single night out, not even at Covent Garden – I cannot help feeling that it’s not the price that’s the point. When something one loves is constantly denigrated, and no evidence you adduce taken on board, one can’t help feeling a bit resentful about it all.

And if it’s not about prices, it’s about dress codes. Or alleged dress codes. Once again, no evidence one puts forward is ever taken on board. We who go to opera, and, what’s more, we who enjoy going to opera, are, we are told, dressed in tiaras and tuxedos, and anyone dressed in “leisurewear” stands out like that proverbial sore thumb, and is stared at. They may even, apparently, be asked to leave. No amount of evidence to the contrary can alter this current of opinion, and so, naturally, we all become more than somewhat sensitive to the whole issue. (Actually, if this is indeed the criterion of stuffiness, rock concerts must count as very stuffy, as anyone dressed in a jacket and tie at a rock concert will certainly stick out like that sore thumb, and will certainly be stared at.)

Perhaps it is this sensitivity surrounding these matters that explains the astonishing vitriol that has been aimed at a recent piece by Howard Jacobson, in which he laments the decline of formal wear at the opera. The piece itself struck me as comic in tone, often tongue-in-cheek, and, like most comedy, indulging in exaggeration and in hyperbole for comic effect. When Jacobson, at the end of the piece, references the sex-strike in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, I must admit I laughed. Not, maybe, as uninhibitedly as I do when watching Marx Brothers films, but I definitely emitted a few audible chuckles. And yet the vitriol, from opera lovers, from performers, from music writers, is unrelenting, both in the below-the-line comments, and also, inevitably, in social media. It’s as if all the good work that has so laboriously been performed in trying to convince people that opera isn’t elitist and stuffy is here undone.

I suppose I am going against the grain here in not objecting to Jacobson’s article. People who think badly of opera and of opera-lovers on account of their alleged “stuffiness” aren’t going to change their minds: they haven’t so far. How much longer must we keep insisting to them that we really are normal people? Yes, of course people are entitled to wear whatever they damn well want. And of course it’s how you respond to the opera that matters, and not what you’re wearing. I doubt Jacobson himself would disagree with any of that. But his point, dressed up as it admittedly is in comic hyperbole, seems to me to be that not only is there nothing wrong in dressing up specially to mark a special occasion, it may even, given we are social animals, and given further that a night out, whether at an opera or at a rock concert, is a social as well as an aesthetic event, be a Good Thing. Such a point I find entirely unexceptionable.

But of course, in my case, given that I look like a sack of potatoes no matter how I dress, it probably doesn’t really matter very much. So let me finish off by offering another picture from our Sicilian holiday of three years ago. Here I am in a Greek theatre in Syracuse, wearing my jacket and buttoned-up shirt in honour of Aeschylus, who is reputed to have performed here.

(And please – no gags about the Popular Front of Judaea: that one has been done to death!)



12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Chris Lyon on October 16, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    And do I spot a pair of well-polished black shoes, adding the final touch to the fashion shoot! You say that you were on holiday with the family – how very odd that none of them chose to to be in the photo…


    • Black shoes, yes, but hardly well-polished! I don’t really get the point of wearing trainers if you aren’t running, or taking part in some sport. They’re not exactly cheap either!

      The children – well, they aren’t children any more, but you know what I mean – weren’t with us on this holiday (they were at college), and my wife was taking the pictures. But you’re right: they wouldn’t have chosen to have been in the photo with me!


  2. I would rather see you in what you find comfortable than so-called leisure wear (which really is *not* that comfy to wear). Lovely post, which made me chuckle at several points!


  3. The Spouse still likes to get indignant about the apparel of a very scruffy man at Rules Restaurant (yes, the one near Covent Garden). Tourists from the Antipodes, we had packed the necessaries to frock up and he felt that if he could lug his apparel around the world in suitcases, the least the locals could do was to wear a tie and iron the shirt. The man turned out to be Bob Geldof…


  4. After 40+ years of going to the opera, I have come to the conclusion that the standard of attentiveness and behaviour of audience members is inversely proportional to the cost of their apparel. If I find I’m sitting next to people wearing suits or dresses that cost more than my car – and why do these people always insist on taking their seats 30 seconds before the lights go down? – I start looking round for an empty seat where I can move to after the interval.

    I read Howard Jacobson’s piece and its tongue-in-cheek nature is very subtle indeed – perhaps too much so for a newspaper whose readers have been known to be a little po-faced on occasions…


    • Hello Neil,
      Like yourself, I thought Howard Jacobson’s tongue-in-cheek piece was subtle. What struck me about the whole business was the sheer level of vitriol it attracted. Even if you take Jacobson at face value, what he was saying did not seem to me worthy of so much outrage. There seemed to me something else going on here.

      It seems to me we have spent years, decades even, bending over backwards trying to convince people to come to the opera, and at least to give it a try. But all to no avail. People who are happy to pay vast amounts on rock concerts suddenly feel that prices are prohibitively expensive as soon as it comes to classical music; people who have no problem putting on a jacket and tie to attend a wedding, say, suddenly feel that they can’t possibly go to the opera as there are some men there who are – gasp! – wearing ties. Basically, these people whom we’re trying to convince are taking the mickey. So I find it quite refreshing to hear someone just say “bugger it!” The more we keep insisting that we aren’t really “stuffy”, the less we are believed, so “bugger it!” seems to me an apt response.

      I also see nothing wrong in dressing up specially to mark special occasions, or, as Jacobson puts it, “to ensure that every hour of the day is not like every other”. We would not wish to spend our entire lives doing the same thing: why should we wish to spend our entire lives dressed the same way? As far as dress codes are concerned, uniformity is, I accept, the enemy of individuality, but we seem to be exchanging the uniformity of formal wear for the uniformity of informal wear, and I can’t really see what is gained.

      At any rate, my own suits are never more expensive than mid-range Marks & Spencers, so you’d be perfectly safe sitting next to me!

      All the best, Himadri


  5. I agree with what you say in your piece – the whole “stuffiness” issue is essentially a straw man argument. If people don’t like opera because it bores them they should say so, rather than creating spurious reasons. There’s no shame in not enjoying a certain art form, after all. Not so long ago a friend here in Prague said that she wasn’t interested in classical music because it “doesn’t speak to her” – and I greatly admired her intellectual honesty (I’m probably biased because I fancy her something rotten, though). It doesn’t help when certain musical commentators (I’m thinking mainly, but not exclusively, of Greg Sandow) keep whining on about how classical music should be more “down with the kids” – it’s so pathetic that if anything it’ll put people off even more!

    Your reply to my comment about Julietta ties in nicely with this thread so there’s no need to pester you twice. I saw a performance on Tuesday at Prague National Theatre, and was surrounded by a large group of young English tourists. I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people who would never go to the opera back at home make a point of going when they come here, Quite often they find that opera is not really their cup of tea, and this group was no exception. It was obvious that many of them were bored, but to their credit they sat quietly until the interval, after which they left. They were dressed very casually and I can’t help thinking that if they were all suited and booted they would have been a major nuisance. Perhaps I’m being unfair…

    I would be delighted to sit next to you at the opera, and discuss the performance afterwards over a tipple or two. If you ever have plans to come to Prague, please do herald it here! Oh, and I’m an M&S man too.


    • No, you’re not being unfair: I know well the “suited and booted” type you mention!
      I may well take you up on your offer: we’ve never visited Prague, and when we do, we’d certainly love to visit the opera. I’ll probably be wearing a jacket, though – not because I’m going to the opera, but because I always wear a jacket. I think I’ve perfected the “crumpled suit” look …
      And if you’re over London way, you know how to contact me!
      Cheers for now, Himadri


  6. Posted by alan on October 22, 2017 at 9:09 am

    Do I detect a fishing expedition in your self-deprecating comments about your alleged sartorial inelegance?
    Jacobson makes it clear that the women are ‘well dressed’ at the opera but the men are not. A below the line commentator suspects that this is male rebellion, the price of attending the Opera. A sort of Lysistrata in reverse with a different kind of penalty. I’ll make a po-faced aside at this point and say that I think its a shame that so many relationships are so transactional, but I think that commentator is on to something, in part.
    In my case I’d rather spend money on an opera ticket than a suit and I’d rather go alone rather than turn it into a social occasion and pay for a meal as well, but then I do have a reputation to maintain.


    • Do I detect a fishing expedition in your self-deprecating comments about your alleged sartorial inelegance?

      If that had indeed been my intention, it didn’t bloody work, did it? 🙂

      Nah – I just saw the potential for a few laughs, and, when writing a blog post, most things are worth sacrificing for a few laughs.

      It’s an interesting point, though, why women tend to be dressed up on these occasions, and men don’t. Is it a sort of Lysistrata in reverse? Maybe. But you notice it on Friday nights down at the George as well – ladies all dressed up for a night out, men scrupulously casual. Does the Reverse Lysistrata principle occur for a Friday night down the George as well? I don’t know. I really am not sure why this is.

      Despite what I’ve written, I don’t really care how people dress. But I do nonetheless find uniformity a bit depressing – by which I mean the uniformity whereby, as Jacobson puts it, every hour of our life is the same as every other hour. Maybe it’s the feminine side of me – I don’t know – but I do quite like dressing up a bit, or at least making the effort, for what I consider special occasions. Even though, in my case, it makes little difference either way…


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