Of Dress Codes and Social Codes at the Opera

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At Teatro alla Scala in elegant Milan there is a “notice for the public” posted in Italian and English that says, “The public is kindly requested to dress in keeping with the decorum of the Theatre, out of respect for the Theatre and for other viewers. People wearing shorts or sleeveless T-shirts will not be allowed inside the auditorium; in this case, tickets will not be reimbursed.”

I know that such a request can prove incredibly divisive and there are valid arguments that can be made for and against it. As someone who spends a lot of time in Italy and used to work at La Scala, I fall somewhere in the middle. But I fervently believe that there are all kinds of reasons why we should not deny admission to people who want to go to the opera and, if that should happen, they definitely should receive a reimbursement.

I entirely understand why Italians feel that dressing well (as opposed, say, to “dressing up”) is important. In their view, it is a good thing to be well-dressed wherever they go, and that includes the opera. It is respectful of others but also makes them feel good about themselves. Churches in Italy have similar dress codes in which arms and legs are expected to be covered. This does not mean that people who have limited financial resources should not be allowed in church but, rather, that certain codes should be honored out of respect for those who go to church or to the opera.

Americans might say that their freedom of self-expression is being denied if they are told how to dress. I think we can learn that self-expression and respect for certain traditions are not mutually exclusive. I have seen many of my fellow citizens dressed in attire more suited to a workout at the gym or for mowing the lawn in restaurants, offices and theaters. This detracts from the specialness of certain occasions.

When I was a student at university in Italy, young men often wore well-cut jeans or cotton pants, a shirt and sweater as part of our attire when going to class. All the clothing fit well. Young women on a budget also wore clothing that was not necessarily fancy but was made of good materials and the garments were properly maintained. When I went to performances as a student, I had a corduroy blazer that fit my budget as well as my shoulders and I had a couple of ties to choose from.

Nowadays in New York, in our more casual times, I can always spot Italians without hearing them speak because of how their clothing fits and how they move in their garments. Italians have an attention to color and tailoring one does not necessarily find elsewhere. They can look good without being fancy or trendy.

Many major countries have their fashion signifiers and you can recognize them if you know what to look for. I am not talking about trying to be chic, but comfortable and at ease. The French have a cultivated casualness that might include a dramatic scarf or a battered leather jacket over a good cotton shirt or blouse with a delicate stripe. I have seen this attire at the Paris Opera along with haute couture and it all is fine. Paris, and France in general, makes room for self-expression along with stylishness and one sees more diverse opera audiences there than most places.

Germans and Austrians often have eyeglasses that make a statement with their titanium or metal frames. They also wear trousers that are higher in the hip and narrower in the cuff than elsewhere. Such attire would be fine at the opera in Berlin or Hamburg but less welcome in Munich or Salzburg.

Scandinavians frequently wear garments made of excellent, though rougher, materials than one might see in the Mediterranean. Yet they project a sense of comfort and often choose colors more vivid than the muted tones Italians like. British men wear shirts and jackets with very high armholes and flattened collars while the women like gently cut dresses that provide comfort and might feature a beautiful floral pattern.

Spaniards favor fine materials but the cut of their garments is a bit looser than the Italians or the British. They also wear fragrances with gentle hints of lavender or citrus, while the French and, especially, the Russians use stronger perfumes that make their presence pervasively known. That, to me, is more of a problem than any clothing they choose to wear because intense smells can indeed ruin a performance for other people.

We Americans shop with less care for materials, color or tailoring than certain Europeans. We can have a personal sense of style but it takes thought and attention. But it is possible, as I recently was reminded.

On April 10, I went to a strong performance of Aida at the Met that had a diverse and stylish audience. There were students, young couples on dates, long-time subscribers, foreign visitors and some people who really dressed up. It all worked and I did not see anyone who would be refused admission to La Scala. And yet, in the middle of all that, was the talented 34 year-old Milanese conductor Daniele Rustioni, resplendent in white tie and tails and bringing a sense of occasion and seriousness to his work at a time when some conductors dress more like defrocked priests than a maestro.

I commend to you a website called Last Night at the Met that I discovered when someone told me that — unbeknownst to me — they included a photo of my stylish mother dressed in cardinal red one evening at the opera. I think this site does a good job of gently showing how people can express themselves, respect others and acknowledge that a night of the opera is still something special.