Cloaks and Baggers

What Happened to the Humble Coat Check?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 02:00 PM

Last week, on the day after Thanksgiving, the so-called Black Friday in which everyone seems hellbent on spending vast amounts of money on things they may or may not need, I opted to go to the theater. In fact, I chose to attend a matinee and an evening performance of different shows at one of New York’s best not-for-profit theatrical institutions where I am a subscriber. It resides in a spacious building and has three or four shows running at any given time, as well as musical performances.

The city was cold, as one would expect in late autumn, and I wore a heavy coat. Other ticketholders were not only were clad in warm outerwear but carried several bags containing Black Friday purchases.

Although this particular theatrical company has large public spaces, it has no place for the hundreds of ticketholders to check their coats and parcels while attending one of the plays there. Seats in the auditoriums can be smallish, so outerwear and bags become encumbrances. In holiday season, ticketholders with big bags cram them under seats. When they move their feet in narrow rows, they inevitably kick their bags and that makes noise. If you have five people in a row with bags under their seats, as I did at my Friday matinee, that means a lot of noise, which is distracting to audience members as well as performers.

I don't like to put my coat on the floor as many people seem willing to do. Think about it: would you wear a garment that has spent hours on a surface walked over by countless shoes? As such, I neatly fold my coat and put it on my lap. Doing that in a warm theater turns the coat into a sort of blanket that can promote sleep. If you have spent good money on a ticket and are eager to concentrate on a performance, you don't want to doze off because you are too hot. Besides, who wants a big coat (many people wear down in cold weather) on your lap for three hours?

I also do not want to put my coat under and around me on my seat. That too can be warm but, more to the point, it creases the coat badly. This raises a parallel question about how people (Americans, especially but not exclusively) seem to have forgotten, or never learned, how to care for their garments. In earlier times, when people had less money and smaller closets, they knew how to take care of their clothing and were mindful of their appearance. I am not talking about fancy, expensive dressing but, rather, the fact that people of great or little means all took more care in how they looked.

Look at archival photographs and films from only a few decades ago and you will see that people in public transportation, on streets, in schools and theaters and even at sporting events were better turned out. Nowadays, in most public settings and institutions where people gather, it is not uncommon that most of the persons you see look like they are dressed to do a workout at the gym or rearrange the furniture. Only much older people still seem to care about their appearance when they go out.

This choice to not only be casual but sloppy has little to do with one’s finances. In fact, very poor people who work in service jobs often take more care to have a clean, ironed shirt and slacks or skirt. Their shoes are polished. They may own fewer of garments, but take better care of what they have. It brings to mind the lyric, “Her clothes were old, but never were they dirty” from a classic Stevie Wonder song.

Apart from the self-esteem that being well-groomed and attired can promote, and the respect that it gains you, it also conveys a sense of occasion when you are with other people in a social setting. I feel the same way about dressing to attend an opera or other live performance. I am writing this after attending a Monday night Aïda at the Metropolitan Opera. Historically, Monday was the dressiest night of the week at the Met for reasons I will detail at another time. The legacy of this persists to some degree but is not a given. Nowadays, it is nice to dress up but not essential if that is not possible. I often notice that people take more care in their appearance in the Met’s Balcony and Family Circle than they do in the pricier seats.

At Aïda I happened to sit in the Orchestra section, toward the back but not near the rows where discounted rush seats are sold. Near me were several young people who dressed in a way that might be described as casual, but their attire was neat, well-fitting and chosen with care. They looked great. Clearly this was a big night out and they wanted to embrace the specialness of it. By contrast, the family behind me was dressed to mow their lawn: T-shirts, ill-fitting jeans and sneakers. They sat on their parkas, which made them sit taller and block the view of the patrons behind them. And they looked a mess when they put their coats on to go home.

I left my coat in the Met’s checkroom in Founders Hall. It is worth the $3 cost to more fully enjoy the opera. Until about 20 years, the Met had two checkrooms but one was converted to storage space. This means that the line is longer to retrieve your coat after the opera, but still very much worth the wait. Talk about the opera for five minutes with those nearby and, before you know it, you will have your coat. It seems to me that the Met has reduced the number of people who staff the checkroom, which is an unfortunate choice. Those who work there are polite and efficient and bring a gracious touch to your night at the opera.

In most European theaters, whether they present plays, operas, dance or concerts, there is a place to check one’s coats and parcels. This is about civility and comfort. If you go to Scandinavia, every theater has enough space for every member of the audience to check a coat. At the Finnish National Opera, there is a large area to remove boots, which then are placed in a bag and checked. For free! At London’s National Theatre (which has three auditoriums) there is enough free checking for every audience member, including bags. And enough staff to enable quick retrieval.

The northern US has a comparable climate to much of Europe. Many of our older theaters, such as the opera houses in Chicago and San Francisco, have generous space for checking. More recent buildings have limited space, or none at all. This is in part a design choice but also a social development. Casual dressing and a willingness to crush or dirty one’s outerwear mean that fewer people patronize checkrooms. They also seem unwilling to pay a small fee. The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center has a nice solution: Lockers that are discreetly part of the design but do not overwhelm it.

In North America, with its many new performing arts centers, there is another reason for the absence of checkrooms. Most audience members drive to these theaters, which are built with copious indoor parking. People leave their coats and parcels in their cars and walk to their shows. However, this fact should not mean the automatic exclusion of checking facilities. An arts facility of any size should either have a checkroom or the kind of lockers that visually integrate with the overall design of a building—less bus terminal and more Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Lest you think I would conclude this article without links to musical performances, I wish to recall two operas by Giacomo Puccini in which outerwear figures prominently. “Vecchia zimarra” from La Bohéme is often called the coat aria. In it, the philosopher Colline decides to sell his only coat to raise money to help pay for medicine for the dying Mimì. He bids the coat farewell with a resigned sweetness of parting with an old friend.

Puccini’s Il Tabarro is the first of three operas in Il Trittico (The Triptych), followed by Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. While the latter works are named for the main characters, “Il Tabarro” is Italian for “the Cloak” worn by Michele, who uses it to smother Luigi, the secret lover of Michele’s wife Lauretta. The work is very powerful and only now gaining recognition as being the equal of the other two. Here is a 1983 performance of the opera from La Scala, led by the grand old maestro Gianandrea Gavazzeni with Piero Cappuccilli as Michele, Nicola Martinucci as Luigi and Sylvia Sass as Lauretta:

After watching the Scala version, take in this concert version from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. It has a strong cast, including Juan Pons as Michele (in his best role, I believe), José Cura as Luigi, Stephanie Friede as Lauretta and Daniela Barcellona as Frugola, with Riccardo Chailly conducting.


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Comments [23]

Patty S

I'm one of those who either sits on her coat or folds it in her lap. No, I don't like having to do it, because it is not comfortable. However, I take a train into the city to go to the theater, opera, or ballet. There is only one return train per hour. Waiting on a coat check line can mean the difference between making my train, or missing it and sitting around Grand Central for an hour in the middle of the night. If there were more, larger, or easier-to-use coat check facilities available, I might use them. That I am not in the habit is the fault of the theaters. Ticket prices get steeper every year; you'd think they could show their customers some appreciation by providing better facilities for them (and don't get me started about the size of the ladies' rooms, although there is improvement). But I really like Harvey's idea, will have to try it.

Regarding the dress issue, I'm often at a ballet or opera on a weekday evening, wearing what I put on for work. It's appropriate business attire, which in my opinion works for the theater too. If I have a few wrinkles after a long day, everyone will have to get over it. As for the people who attend in T-shirts and jeans, their money is the same color as everyone else's. The arts institutions in this country are struggling, and at least they have chosen to support the performing arts by buying tickets.

Nov. 30 2012 02:30 PM

I personally enjoy dressing in my best for the opera, but am happy not to be responsible for anyone else-when the lights go down and the music and magic start, I can't see the wrinkles and dots on the ties.

I was also thinking that it is curious that the most comments are on the blogs about booing, snoring, wheezing, dressing or not dressing and making out at the opera-but I am always interested to see, Fred, how you are going to tie these sundry topics to the bigger picture of opera. Again you have adroitly linked this topic of cloaks and bags to opera characters performing in a cloak-but my vote for an opera performance in a bag would have to go to Gilda!

Nov. 30 2012 11:57 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Nice article, thanks. No one should be surprised. You have only to observe what passes for the popular culture today. Reality tv that glorifies bad behavior, really sloppy dirty people, some of whom turn your stomach. A large viewing audience. This is not a recent occurence. I went to City Opera years ago and noticed people who were sloppy and unkempt. Wonderful new world. Glad I will not be here much longer.

Nov. 30 2012 10:03 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

To Ben from NYC: Thanks for your comments. It seems that you are responding more to other commenters than to what I wrote in my article. You might have missed my line "Nowadays, it is nice to dress up but not essential if that is not possible." In my article I point out that many people go to the opera in casual dress and that is fine so long as one's garments are well-cared for. I believe that looking nice and dressing to please can enhance your experience at an opera performance. This is not about being fancy. I would suggest that you purchase one tie for yourself, a basic rep tie in navy blue or burgundy with simple pin dots on the surface. Quality ties like this are useful in many circumstances and can make you very comfortable in them. And, with a bit of research you can buy such a tie for about $10. I agree with you that the most important thing is the music and I am glad you are passionate about it. Similarly, prices at major opera companies can be punitive. Because you live in New York, I encourage you to check out the many small opera companies the city has where prices are much more friendly and you will encounter varied repertory, talented singers and productions that are more resourceful because economizing is essential for these companies to stay afloat. And you will likely see me at one of these performances, without my tie.

Nov. 30 2012 06:40 AM
Ben from NYC

Sorry Fred, but times are changing. As a male in my 20's, without a high power job (let's not get into my job security or lack of benefits), I have no call for formal dress or even a tie. Of course you are right; if I lived when my grandparents were my age, I'd have worn a tie when I to see my friends. But since it's the year 2012 if I went to hang out with my friends wearing a tie, I would be dressed inappropriately. Who wouldn't like to drop their coat off during the coat check, but I can't go around spending extra bucks to have someone else hold my coat and my date's coat (and then throw in a tip). Simply justifying the cost of a seat in the nosebleeds, takes some doing. Let's face it opera is dieing like so many of the things I love (classical music s.l., museums, education). If we don't want to "lose opera", we had better start getting the next generation, my generation, excited about it. That doesn't mean turning operas into pseudo-rock concerts or putting on bizarre productions. It means bringing opera into their lives in a meaningful way. Young people need exposure to the art. Some won't respond to it. Some will; just like in the last generation or two. Worrying about snotty, upper-crust issues, a wrinkled jacket, is missing the elephant in the room. For those who have mentioned Justin f***ing Bebier in their responses, pop stars wore ridiculous clothes even back in your glorious '50... Elvis.

Nov. 29 2012 03:31 PM
Geoff from New York City

A decline in dress standards? I see a variety of changes.

For my part, the real discussion is about having one's mind and soul try on as many forms as classical music as they can to find which ones suit them best. No jacket required.

I'm with you Bernie!

Nov. 29 2012 03:04 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To commenters: thanks for your lively and varied input. I encourage you to do the same on opera topics that are not "behavioral" To James G: very good suggestion. To Barbara Q: keep up the good work with your very fine singing. To Lauren: This is indeed an opera blog in which I cover the vast range of the opera experience: singers; composers; those who create and stage opera productions; audiences (which you are a part of) and their preferences and viewpoints; history; opera around the world (these articles have a big international readership); and the sheer pleasure that opera can provide. Clearly, the issue of how people dress has struck a chord here. From my perspective, it is about aesthetics, about the trained eye, and about social engagement. These are all opera-related topics. Opera is a giant reflecting mirror in which we discover so much about ourselves. That is one of the chief reasons I love it.

Nov. 29 2012 10:48 AM
James Gedge from Shokan

Make the coat check Free! Don't use it as a money maker but as a service included in the exorbitant ticket prices.

Nov. 29 2012 08:47 AM
Pamela from Queens, NY

For me, it is all about the context. Our concert halls, like our houses of worship (if one attends the latter), are both special places, "temples," if you will, and I believe our attire should reflect those venues. They are places of beauty, uplift, culture, and different values. I am not going to work nor to a barbecue; I am going to a place where I will hear and see things that are not part of my daily experience. Why should I look like an unmade bed? Besides, it is fun to wear nice clothes and accessories and to be surrounded by others who are similarly attired.

Nov. 28 2012 06:11 PM
Lauren from Under the seat at the Met. Orchestra Row U, Seat 116.

Is this an opera blog or a blog about how to dress in public? Just curious.

Nov. 28 2012 04:00 PM
Thomas from NWNJ

I have never attended the ballet, opera or symphony in anything other than jacket and tie. For me it is a show of respect for the artists. I am appalled at the manner of dress evident in our theatres. I know that attendance is dwindling and that the performance company would rather have a house full of slobs than a house half full of beau brummels. But it is in my opinion another aspect of the dumbing down of America.

Nov. 28 2012 01:22 PM
Floria from NYC

To every thing there is a season....a time for jeans, and a time for pants, a time for rumpled shirts, and a time for decent shirts.... It's those who can't differentiate that make me scratch my head. I, too, wish there were free coat checks....I remember in Europe having to check my coat, at first I hated it, being the rebellous American that I was, but soon grew to love the freedom it gave me...There's no way on earth that coat checks would be squeezes every penny out of, refreshments, coat checks...I'm sure they will soon be charging for programs.

Nov. 28 2012 11:04 AM
Judith from Boston, MA

With all due respect, I don't think that there are any exclusionary rituals that prevent people from attending opera, concerts, or theater. I'd blame it far more on the exorbitant cost of tickets. Yes, I know that less expensive seats can be had in the rafters or standing room only (an option at the Met, but not, for example, at Boston Lyric Opera). Nonetheless, a decent seat is well beyond the means of many.

Nov. 28 2012 10:43 AM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

I love reading the predictable cop-out responses that seem to assume that there are "rituals" and codes invovled in classical music performance. Often these come together with an assumption that you can only "be yourself" if dressed casually or worse, and that clothes must be uncomfrotable to look good. Dress clothes can be comfortable; some people are themselves as much when looking "dressed up" as when in "hanging out" clothes. That said, it has become de rigeur to try to blame the decline in listener base for "classical" music (hmmmm: actually, some of it is Baroque; some Renaissance; some Romantic . . . ) on the sub rosa enforcement of these supposed "rituals" which I never knew about when I was in high school and college, instead of on the lack of exposure to other than pop music, either at home, in school, in the constant white noise of lowest common denominator pop culture, etc. It is this that keeps new audiences away, not dress codes; it is the failure to develop the habits of listening that are needed for more extended and involved music, rather than the belief that you have to wear a tie (which I only do when going to the opera or a concert right from work: otherwise I wear what has now come to be called "business casual") in order to go. I agree with Fred and the other commenters, including Ms. Quintiliani, who stress that you don't have to be rich or old to have a sense of how to look good.

Nov. 28 2012 10:12 AM
Bernie from UWS

I think it's easy to disparage people who don't dress nicely for the opera, but when opera companies see aging audiences and dwindling attendance, it's fair to say that part of the blame lies in exclusionary rituals that keep a large segment of the public out.

We shouldn't be focusing on enforcing formality but on doing away with the barriers that make opera seem forbidding and elitist. I for one would like to see more opera houses encouraging interactivity using Twitter, live chats, facebook, etc. before, during and after performances.

Nov. 28 2012 09:51 AM
Daniel Cannizzo from Millburn, NJ

I enjoyed Fred's commentary. I guess those of us over a certain age expect and were taught to dress neatly and with our best clothes to go to church, Broadway, the Opera and work. ripped anything was for around the house only or for yard work. Comfort is king today. I am constantly surprised when i attend live performances especially opera and i see the inappropriate apparel worn-- torn anything is a design statement i cannot accept in public. I was saddened by the music awards recently where Justin Bieber wore red leather looking pants with the crotch hanging down to his knees !!! do all these "street gang" design style folks know how that evolved ? I saw a show recently that did a history of the style of pants with the waist hanging low was developed in PRISON to let other prisoners know you were available for sex ! and this style has evolved to be acceptable in public..sad. No i don't want to see what brand of boxers or briefs one is wearing !

Nov. 28 2012 06:32 AM

I must respectfully, but strongly disagree with Bernie's comment above. There is no snobbery in such ideals as you and many of the others put forth. It is not about the expensiveness or newness of your wardrobe, but the respect for yourself and the event you are attending. No one is asking for a tuxedo, but even a button up shirt with the jeans would be a good start.

Nov. 28 2012 01:53 AM
Barbara Quintiliani from Boston, MA

Dear Mr. Plotkin,
I thank you very much indeed for writing this article. I am a professional opera singer, and have seen it all, all over the world. I admit would rather sing to a full house of people just eager to hear a performance of a live opera dressed in jeans and t-shirts than a half full house of people dressed to the nines. At the same time, I believe the problem you addressing is a universal one at the moment. I do believe that how you dress shows respect for the activity in which you are participating. For example, if you know who Justin Bieber is, you might know that he showed up to meet the Prime Minister of Canada in denim overalls and a baseball cap. To my mind completely unacceptable. I admit when I come to the stage door after a performance, my heart does leap up to see ladies in fine dresses and gentlemen in suits. I don't think it is elitist to expect a certain level of behavior and dress in public. After all, I come from a blue collar family in South Boston. We are not fancy here. But you can bet my nonna would track me down if I ever appeared in public in anything but my best.

Nov. 27 2012 08:56 PM

I'm glad to read that there are other people who think special occasions deserve special clothes. Living out here in the hinterlands of the USA it's no better. Even when the invitation SAYS black tie there's no telling how people will show up.

Could it be the ease with which higher cultural performances are acquired with online access such as streaming and podcast that has diminshed the special quality of the performing arts?

Nov. 27 2012 08:36 PM
Bob from Harlem, New York

I am continually appalled at how people dress. As you say, Fred, it takes only a few minutes to scan home movies or family photos taken prior to the mid-1960s to see people wearing jackets and ties in the home, let alone at the office or to the theater.

This is not about comfort, or snobbery, either. Rather, it’s about respect for one’s self and others around them. The decline in dress standards is a key component, I believe, to the overall decline of public civility and decorum. One’s language, for example, is less likely to be ‘street’ while wearing a tie than workout togs.

In short, we may have gained comfort, but we’ve lost nearly everything else. Sadly, many institutions do not make dressing well easy. Try checking a hat in the theater or even one of the best restaurants – I’ve seen coat check people crumple fedoras into sleeves or squash them into small spaces. It’s enough to make one cry.

Nov. 27 2012 07:34 PM
Bernie from UWS

I'm glad the era of enforced formality is mainly behind us. That's part of what got classical music into the troubles it's in now: Young people decided they could go to a rock show, dress casually and be themselves.

There's an implicit snobbery in some of the above opinions - that a rumpled family is somehow less welcome at the opera house. Who cares if their coats are wrinkled? At least they're trying to expose their kids to opera, which is the most important thing.

Nov. 27 2012 07:22 PM
Harvey Steiman from San Francisco

To solve the coat issue I bring along a tote bag large enough for the folded coat to fit into it. Instead of holding the coat on my lap, I can slip it under the seat without the coat contacting the floor. It comes out unwrinkled. A soft plastic shopping bag (not the stiff kind that can crackle when touched) can also work; I use this for baseball games (jackets are usually needed for late innings in San Francisco) because the plastic seals off any beer or soda spills (not usually a problem at the opera, symphony or theater).

Nov. 27 2012 06:51 PM

Going on 40 years ago, we wore velvets and lace in the Family Circle, and jeans and sweatshirts in the orchestra. This was at ballet performances at the Met.

It still kills me, though, that no one dresses up for Christmas or parties.

Nov. 27 2012 06:38 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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