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Are dress codes still relevant?

Fashion is an integral part of who I am. From avidly collecting issues of American Vogue growing up and admiring Grace Coddington’s dreamy editorials, to persistently applying to Central Saint Martins (finally succeeding on my third attempt), my unwavering obsession with it has shaped my entire life. Now, as a fashion editor, I make it a point to dress in a way that reflects my personal style, whether I’m going to a friend’s casual birthday picnic or a formal industry gathering. However, a recent incident at a newly opened Mayfair restaurant has sparked questions in my mind about the meaning and relevance of dress codes today.

Here’s what happened. I had dinner plans with two fashion PRs that I had been emailing for a while. They suggested a new restaurant called TKTKTK (let’s just go with that…). I knew I’d need some form of an evening jacket and smart shoes, so I opted for a navy double-breasted piece from Acne Studios and my oxblood Maison Margiela Tabi loafers. Due to the sweltering 29-degree weather, though, I chose to complete my look with tailored shorts – black velvet culottes by Comme des Garçons Homme Plus. As I arrived for dinner, the staff, dressed in themed uniforms, gave me hesitant stares. It wasn’t until I reached the front desk that I realised trouble was brewing.

The maître d’ scrutinised my ensemble with her gaze and firmly stated, “Your shorts won’t be suitable. We do have spare trousers you can borrow, if you’re interested. Alternatively, you could consider rescheduling for another date.” My face flushed with embarrassment as the PRs, who were already seated at our table, came to retrieve me. I felt mortified by the spectacle created over an outfit that, in my own judgement, I considered to be formal enough. Plus, the restaurant’s website specified that “caps, ripped or distressed jeans, sportswear or beachwear, flip flops, sliders or workout trainers” were prohibited, but had no mention of shorts. Swiftly, we departed and found another establishment just a few doors down that was equally posh. Remarkably, I encountered no issues gaining entry. I was left wondering how in 2023 an establishment can truly discern what’s considered appropriate attire? And in this ever-evolving, naked dressing-obsessed era, what does ‘appropriate’ even mean?

Vogue’s contributing editor and stylish woman-about-town, Tish Weinstock, recently encountered a similar incident at a prestigious members club. However, it was not she who faced rejection but her two male guests, who, by the way, happen to be the creative directors of one of the most iconic streetwear brands. Tish shares her perspective, stating, “Strict dress codes are draconian and they alienate an entire cross-section of people – usually young and working in the arts – most of whom these clubs are desperate to have in their establishments.” She highlights the impact on men, saying, “It’s worse for men, because it ties in with restrictive notions of gender. What if a man doesn’t feel comfortable in a suit? Where does that leave people who identify as non-binary?”

When queried on the importance of dress codes, Michiel Steur, vice president of brand revenue at British Vogue and events & special projects lead for Vogue, GQ & Glamour, asserts that strict dress codes are “very gender stereotypical and therefore not inclusive.” In his role overseeing British Vogue’s star-studded events, he acknowledges the value of establishments having some level of guidelines for dressing, as long as they are not overly restrictive and promote inclusivity. (Recently I had no entry issues at the British Vogue X Self Portrait annual summer party, where Michiel had a hand in organising, while I was dressed in an SS Daley shorts set.) “In my opinion, any fashion choice that enables you to present yourself as who you are should be appropriate in any setting,” he states.

Meanwhile, Harry Engall, a restaurant and culture publicist at Purple who collaborates with some of the most exciting hotspots of the moment, admits dress codes can “sometimes feel a bit old-fashioned these days”, but believes they do “still have their place at certain establishments.” He explains – “it’s all about striking that balance between respecting the formality of the place, while embracing our modern sense of fashion – a polished casual style hits the sweet spot.” Additionally, he emphasises the enchanting effect when everyone present exudes their unique aesthetic, remarking, “There’s a certain magic to the atmosphere when everyone around you is looking fabulous in their own ways.”

Strict dress codes uphold particular standards and formality, but can feel outdated and stifling when they lack room for creative flair. Plus, vague specifications and uninformed judgement make them even more irrelevant in today’s self-expressive world. Upscale establishments may need to reevaluate strategies and train management for appropriate responses in such circumstances. In the age of trial by social media, can restaurants afford to be so stringent? Perhaps, as Harry so aptly put it, “polished casual” is the way forward.

Ultimately, prioritise your own joy and wear clothes that make you feel like yourself. I, for one, will still be dining in my black velvet culottes – whether there’s a Michelin star or not.

This article was originally published on Vogue UK.

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