The Problem With Dresscodes


Dylan Jones deconstructs the antiquated custom of London’s dresscodes.


For all London’s frenetic flaws, one thing that can be said for it, is that it’s an imaginative and unselfconsciously fashionable city. Anything goes really. The seasoned, streetwise residents have accepted that it’s too much of a melting pot to be militant about something as trivial as clothing.

Of course, it depends on the context. Marching down Brixton High Street at midday on a Sunday in full drag, would probably be inadvisable. And you COULD storm through South Kensington’s sleepily affluent tree-lined streets in camoflage cargo pants and a pair of brothel creepers, but Sienna Miller might call the community officers on you. Or at the very least, organize a freetrade, ethically-sourced neighbourhood watch meeting.


But for the most part, nobody in London gives a toss what you’re wearing. And it shows in the city’s social subsections. Restaurant and theatre culture has become markedly less stuffy since the cumbersome cummerbund days of British high society. Even the opera is a fairly louche affair. Whilst there are still mink stoles to be spotted on the porcelain shoulders of certain socialites, many have been tossed aside in favour of neon faux-fur or perhaps a commercially ironic Moschino McDonalds affair.

The nightclubs too, have bottled away their conformity in favour of an eclectic cocktail of colour. You could wear absolutely anything on the East London nightlife scene and not look out of place. Even if Kellyanne Conway went dressed as Kellyanne Conway, people would whoop with delight, thinking she was a particularly dead-on drag queen, taking a daring dig at conservative values. If you go out in tracksuit bottoms, it’s not considered cheap or lazy, it’s considered coolly uncaring. If you go out in a suit, people just assume you’re Keith Richards’ son, or that you’ve just been to the Brit Awards. At the time of writing, velvet chokers and pastel pink baseball caps are very in, but that might all have changed by next week. Part of the joy of London is that you can get away with anything. There’s always an aesthetic rabbit-hole to hurl yourself down, bangles jingling and scarves swinging.

The result of this bohemian fashion free-for-all is infinitely more interesting than a monochrome world of suits and cocktail dresses. There’s so much more to look at, and so much more opportunity for self-expression and creativity; both of which are extremely important in a world which seems to increasingly be rewarding mediocrity.

Given all of this, it’s surprising that anywhere at all still bothers enforcing dresscodes, but believe it or not it does still happen. It’s at its most prevalent in Leicester Square’s uniquely bleak and misguided straight venues, and a few others around the rest of West and Central London.

For the most part, all it entails is a sign at the entrance, usually addressing men. They’ll read something like “Smart casual. Men must not wear jeans or trainers” and it’s as simple as that. But, while it’s the accepted norm in many places, I find this seemingly innocuous and reasonable request utterly ludicrous.

Let’s use the “no trainers” requirement as an example. I expect what they mean when they say they want “no trainers” is “no trashed Essex boys in white JD Sport high-tops, stumbling in and vomiting KFC everywhere” (a type of assumption which of course has its own problematic class stereotype issues.) But fashion is far too nuanced to be that black and white and objective about it. Not unlike dressing in London, it’s all about context. Fashion depends on who’s wearing it, and how it’s being worn. What if, say, Kanye West turned up in a pair of Christian Louboutin’s Louis Strass trainers (RRP £1,895) with Kim Kardashian and twenty paparazzi in tow. Would they turn him away?

I’ve actually witnessed something not dissimilar to this first-hand. A couple of weeks ago, at around midnight on a Friday, a friend and I rocked up at a swanky cocktail bar in Soho. He’s a Grammy-nominated music producer and recording artist. He wasn’t allowed in because he was wearing a pair of trainers. He was also wearing a custom-cut Armani suit and, being a high profile person, would have lent an electric atmosphere to the venue and boosted their profile. People inside were already excitedly glancing over, taking surreptitious photos on their phones.

But this, apparently, was of no consequence, because he was wearing the wrong sort of material on his feet. I was wearing a charity shop shirt that I bought for £2, and some jeans with ketchup on them, but they said I was allowed in, because I happened to be wearing a pair of All Saints boots from 2011. The whole thing was completely ridiculous, and it’s a perfect example of how these venues are shooting themselves in the foot (trainered or otherwise.)

But it’s not just the fact that the concept doesn’t match the city’s laissez-faire punk throwback mantra. It’s a concept that doesn’t work in our blurred 2017 reality. Dresscodes, by their very nature, rely on gender roles, and the various constraints and social constructs tied in with that. Events like weddings or award ceremonies come to mind. The dresscode requires men to wear suits and women to wear gowns. In doing this, they’re not only assuming that we identify with conventional gender norms, but that we wish to comply with them.

Who gets to decide that this is the done thing? Who says men must wear three bits of fabric, with another long thin bit of fabric hanging down the middle, and that we should just accept that? Personally, whilst I do happen to identify as male, I’ve felt uncomfortable in suits since childhood, so for black tie events I usually just wear black skinny jeans with an open shirt and lots of jewellery. I get looks from people sometimes, but who cares. If I were to wear a suit, I’d feel constricted, and wouldn’t have a good time, and certainly wouldn’t be a fun guest. And would that not defeat the whole purpose of the event?

Similarly, why are women expected to wear revealing gowns and oppressively uncomfortable heels? In fact, many people are starting to question these dresscodes, and it’s something that’s become less and less imperative in recent years. High profile women like Tilda Swinton and Janelle Monae have frequently broken the mould at events like The Oscars and The Grammys, and have looked fabulous doing it. 

As far as I’m concerned, dresscodes are acceptable in one capacity, and one capacity only; themed events. Like a 1940s swing night. Or a fetish night. Because at least you know what you’re getting. You’ve sought out that event, because it’s what you feel like wearing. You’re CHOOSING to dress a certain way because you’re passionate about the time period, or because it turns you on. Not because antiquated and ultimately useless societal rules are forcing you to. Fashion as we know it today wasn’t born out of uniform conformity, it was born out of hedonistic, selfish, indulgent desire. And that’s what it should always be about.