Photograph by J. A. Hampton / Stringer

Undressing the Dress Code

Why and when does the much-maligned “dress code” hold out?

by Alice Hines
|
Jun 29 2017, 6:25pm

Photograph by J. A. Hampton / Stringer

Forget Day-to-Night or Night-to-Morning-After. What do you wear to tutor the SAT one hour before covering a fashion week party? To a wedding in the Mojave Desert and another at Hotel Bel Air—the latter themed "BAREFOOT JUNGLE BLACK TIE"? To a party with tiered admission rates based on skimpiness? While we're at it, what is the difference between a cargo and a parachute pant? Does my sweater look plucked from the runway of downtown deconstructivists Eckhaus Latta, or what it is: mid-aughts Anthropologie shrunk in the wash?

Getting dressed in New York City means a series of unanswerable questions. They're prompted by the city's pace (maniacal) and layout (schizophrenic). The ubiquity of athleisure—the high fashion sweatshirt, the crisply tailored track pant, the must-have sneaker—has created a kind of new mass uniform that privileges well-groomed comfort over propriety. And a zeal for avant-garde street wear has ushered in an "anything goes!" attitude in certain pockets of Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. But in truth, for the average New Yorker, what works in apartment and subway and cubicle and gym are often not the same. The trickiest bit of this puzzle is that, despite the dwindling existence of edicts like "business casual," getting dressed in 2017 is basically a lawless exercise. Your choices are no longer meant to reflect the context in which you wear them, but some inner nugget of self. Class is drag, gender is passé, offices have ball pits and nap pods, and retail is a Rorschach test , with infinitely tweakable subcultural niches waiting to be unscrambled into a look unique to you. Personal style is now an essential facet of the new New York religion: personal brand.

It's liberating, paralyzing—and in spite of it all, fun! The popular interest in clothing seems to have surged, with even the casual fashion follower ready to chime in on the latest looks from Vetements. So who would trade this breezy reverie for a set of rigid rules? Apparently, a lot of people. Here is a sampling of the dress codes currently being enforced by social establishments in New York City: "Casual business attire... jeans in GOOD REPAIR." (A midtown social club.) "Well-tailored and fitted clothing." (A Meatpacking District rooftop, perhaps an attempt to avoid the racially-tinged "no baggy jeans," which triggered a civil rightslawsuitfor its East Village counterpart.) "Corsets and schoolgirl skirts. American Psycho in a three piece suit." (A downtown fetish party.) "Suit and tie upon entering, all white on the courts, nude in the swimming pool." (An uptown athletic club.) At the restaurant Per Se, suit jackets are required, while at the Soho House, they are discouraged (the rule was established a few years ago, as the club purged the corporate riffraff from its member roll). Dances of Vice, a burlesque event, asks that guests at next fall's Halloween party come "Strictly Feral."

It's a weird assortment. Broadly, it can be grouped into two categories: codes designed to uphold traditions of a bygone era, and codes designed to push people to defy the everyday. In other words, today's dress codes are mostly employed for totally opposite ends—even when their means can be very similar.

Both types largely impact men—perhaps because their wardrobe possibilities are less lawless and the daily results are usually less daring. A recent applicant at the 100-year-old, male-only Racquet And Tennis Club on Park Avenue, for example, described to me what he wore to one of ten admissions interviews: "A Ralph Lauren suit, which I fucking hate. It's purposefully oversized. The jacket is supposed to go down to the cuticles of your thumb. And I had to buy tortoiseshell glasses and get a haircut. I'm like, what if I don't want to do this? My dad's like, well, you then won't get in. And that would be horrendously embarrassing." Now accepted—"which I absolutely wanted; I love squash and they have all these anachronistic things, like an oyster room with a door where you call the oyster men"—the member complies happily with the code: suits and ties in the lounge (turtlenecks are allowed on weekends), all-white to play racquets, tennis, or squash (black shorts are allowed in the aerobics room), and nothing in the swimming pool. (The Colony Club, an all-female social and athletic club which caters to a similar crowd, requires "suits, dresses, skirts, tailored slacks, blouses and sweaters" for its members.)

When these types of dress codes are changed to hew closer to reality, they attract more controversy. "MORAL CRISIS," read the Times headline in 1999, when the 120-year-old Yale Club's suit-and-tie dress code loosened to allow jeans and sneakers on Friday, to accommodate younger members. The crisis was still in the making fifteen years later. In a letter obtained by Page Six, a member lamented "the sad decline in atmosphere and spirit" of the club, epitomized by "a Yale law student wearing a T-shirt emblazoned in large letters with 'F--k Forever'," not to mention two "teenagers in dirty cutoff jeans" who reportedly stole a briefcase from a CEO.

(Recently, I asked a late-20 something Eli for his impression of the Yale Club's crowd. He was wearing a kimono, boxer shorts with Margaritas printed on them, and not much else. "Republicans," he replied.)

The specific dress codes of Chelsea leather bars could not be more different from those at the Yale Club. At L.U.R.E., a club on 13th street near Ninth Avenue that became known for its dress code before it closed in 2003, the code posted on the wall listed permitted items, including motorcycle jackets, chaps, codpieces, harnesses, marine and police uniforms, rubber wear, and torn Levi's. (Lacoste shirts and "colognes that prohibit one's manly scent" were prohibited.) Yet the enforcement of this code and the generational rift it ultimately caused mirrors what happened steps from Grand Central station. "There was this battle between the new and old guard," says Derek Danton, the proprietor of the Eagle, a leather bar which originated from the same scene as L.U.R.E., and which, in 2004, adopted a dress code similar to its predecessor's. "They'd say, I wanna wear sneakers with my harness instead of boots. And the old guard felt really insulted."

Per Danton, dress codes originally had a critical purpose in the leather scene: "After Stonewall in '69 the gay community was under assault, and the only way to protect themselves was to coalesce around a set of rules and standards." Later, as gay culture was accepted by and absorbed into the mainstream, a new generation lost interest in upholding those standards. These days, you'll see leather alongside diverse types of fetishwear, from puppy play gear to diapers, as well as T-shirts and jeans. "There's more acceptance and diversity," says Danton. "People don't like being told what to do."

In one sense, the leather bar saga is the story of every subculture: a scene that defines itself in opposition to mainstream and develops norms of its own, restrictive as the ones it was rebelling against. In another, it's the story of how any community—whether harness- or Hamptons-bound—must fight to maintain its identity in dynamic with the world outside. As dress codes at the Eagle relaxed, some of the community feel was lost, says Danton. "Certain people don't understand why that is."

Other underground establishments continue to enforce dress codes with increasing popularity. At Jackie Factory—a collective whose "celebrants on any given night might include a 68-year-old construction worker who had just begun to cross-dress, members of a local computer hacking club, [and] the fetish-dressed designer Thierry Mugler," writes producer and co-founder Chi Chi Valenti in her online bio—"the more severe the theme, the more people rise to the occasion," Valenti says. Her latest party, for instance, was inspired by 1983 Stevie Nicks track "Garbo" (picture feathers and fringe and enough blonde wigs to feed a bonfire). Unlike those at leather bars, Jackie codes became been famous for encouraging, rather than stifling, flair. Consider its 1994 "Fiddler in the Hood" party flyer, held in the pre-gentrified meatpacking district. Suggested wear included "oversized gold chains with star of David pendants, Gaultier Hasidic couture, fringed prayer shawls with Adidas warmup jackets, and Nation of Islam gear."

Valenti is a writer as well as a New York underground nightlife fixture, whose claims to fame include penning a cover story for Details in 1988 on the Harlem voguing scene (predating not just Madonna's track but also Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris is Burning) and coining the term "cyberslut." She argues that strict rules encourage creativity in a time when everyday fashion is becoming blander. There's 10 million boring clubs in the city," she told me by phone, in between preparing for events. "On the street you see less and less creativity. People need this."

Or do they? The other day, I came upon a blog, the "Unfancy," dedicated to what can only be described as very normal clothes. In one two-part post, the author writes at length on the various way to pair ankle boots with jeans: short socks with skinny jeans, wooly socks with semi-skinny boot-cut jeans, cuffs with v-shaped booties, no cuffs with Boho boots. Forty seven people commented. Do you always size up to fit warm socks or go with your actual fit? What socks do you wear with low-cut booties? Can you put together a gift guide?

Why is it that our code-less time has prompted so much blandness? Over the past decade, fast fashion has made almost any look available for cheap. Loosening sexual norms have changed who can wear dresses and skirts, who can experiment with make-up, who can free a nipple. Yet it's amid this flexibility of gender and class, this disappearance of enforced standards of dress, that new standards are emerging. Increasingly, we cling to codes of popular invention, whether Kardashian beige or Supreme red, Eileen Fisher minimalism or tech-bro utilitarianism, sorority sisters in Lilly Pulitzer or black-clad techno nerds outside of Berghain in Berlin. It's tempting to mock the commenters of the Unfancy, yet they are only an extreme version of a widespread phenomenon: the homogenization of fashion into voluntary uniforms. Even as the dress code declines, it is becoming increasingly relevant.

Last month, in a video taken at the Cannes Film festival, Kristen Stewart vocalized the popular conception of dress codes. When asked in a video interview with the Hollywood Reporter about the film festival's decades-old official code of dresses and heels for women, Stewart said, "You just can't ask people that anymore. If you're not asking guys to wear [that] you can't ask me either."

She was wearing a white tank top (Aritzia), black shorts (rag & bone), a padlock necklace, and fingerless leather gloves (Chanel)—which, combined with her bleached buzz cut, created a visual punk-rock repudiation of the norms that once defined celebrity style, despite the ensemble's fashion credentials. On the red carpet later that day, Stewart's outfit sent a different message. Smiling for the cameras, she wore a perfectly compliant metallic tweed Chanel evening dress and strappy black stilettos.

Alice Hines is a writer living in New York (but she's in Berlin right now).