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Formal, Casual, Fancy: Some Thoughts On Operatic Audience Clothing

Even in my lifetime, there’s been a shift in what people wear to the opera.

Specifically, from ‘formal’ clothing to a greater acceptance of ‘casual’ clothing.

This is for good reasons. In brief, to make opera more socially normal; to remove some of its arcane rules of whether it’s acceptable to wear a long tie or a bow tie and so on.

For formal dress is, in practice, actually bourgeois dress. It is suits and evening gowns, as worn in Bloomsbury in the 1900s, Paris in the 1880s, and so on, with minor differences in style. Even the aristocracy, more or less, follow this mode of dress (except for coronations and other state occasions, where they wear Victorian medieval-inspired robes with all the discomfort of people who’ve never been to a LARP).

That is to say, by removing formal dress, you remove part of opera’s bourgeois code. Not all of them, importantly - both Covent Garden and the Coliseum both architecturally scream of those codes of formality; they still (mostly) expect adherence to Wagnerian rules of silence and when-to-clap; they still covet The Great Work.

Given the choice between formal and casual for opera audiences, I am broadly in favour of the latter.

However, I think a binary was constructed where there were other options.

Formal. Casual. Fancy.

Fancy means many things to many people. It means dressing up for a night out. It means your best clothes for a gig. Or job interview. Or your mate’s wedding. That outfit you love wearing but never have an excuse to. A LARP costume. Or going all-out with the chaotic mess of your ex-goth fairypunk wardrobe.

But in particular, it means ‘a bit of an effort’. Not necessarily much of one. But something.

By removing the requirement for formal dress, opera removed part of its rituals of performance. For while it was wrong to require audiences to obey bourgeois rules (in contrast to some of the rules of Mozart’s time), opera once again showed its tendency for piecemeal and superficial reform that led to inconsistencies.

I was recently reminded of Abelard’s Sic et Non (Yes and No), listing all the contradictions in the Bible and church law. Doing a similarly comprehensive guide for opera would take some time, and some of them have led to its particular glories.

Why would opera not opt for fancy? In part, because the reform wasn’t thought-through. It started with, I suspect ‘we want Ordinary People [that well-defined category] to come, and They Dress Like This’.

But it also probably had some roots in a bourgeois ability to imagine ‘casual’ in bourgeois terms (in my experience, bourgeois-casual of chinos and a plain T-shirt is fine, but people who turn up in scruffy jeans and a T-shirt get more side-glances), but have more difficulty in other conceptions of what ‘dressing up to honour the event’ might mean.

Potentially, it’s also something to do with what norms those other modes of ‘fancy’ might imply. The glorification of grunge, or of reuse, or of making do, in contrast to cleanliness, or consumption, or indulgence. One person’s disgraceful is another person’s fancy.

Perhaps, then, it is time to imagine another revision in opera’s dress code. What would happen if we preserved the ritual of dressing up to honour the event, but changed the frame?

After all, the stated wish of many ardent defenders of formal dress is that it's a way to show a level of respect for the performance by making an effort. Is this not more or less what they wished for?

I suspect we can identify the 'less', for some of these people.

For many of the examples above are not bourgeois examples. Nor do they show an urgent desire to classify, regulate, and homogenise that characterises several elements of bourgeois society.

They require a re-imagining of opera as a space that is both for everyone, but still asks for rituals of mutual participation and respect - however you might form them yourself.

A passing and ill-developed thought, but one that may be of interest.

An image of six people; three masculine people wearing suits, three feminine people in formal dresses. Text reads 'Opera Awards Foundation Announces 19 Bursary Recipients for 2022'. One of the people is this blog's author, Leo Doulton.
I scrolled through my images for something to illustrate this blog. I think this picture does help illustrate the point.


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