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What to Wear?

David Finkle contemplates the trend toward "dressing down" on the part of theater audiences. logo
Those were the good old days!
In Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching, John Epperson -- portraying his alter ego nightclub singer -- mouths some tips about dressing up for the theater that were probably recorded in the '50s or '60s. "Feeling more beautiful, you're apt to find the play better," the fabulous Lypsinka intones with sculptured mouth and signature finesse.

The comment, amusing for its weird logic some decades ago, might well be greeted by today's theatergoers with blank expressions. Dressing up for the theater -- what a concept! Ticket buyers circa 2003 rarely seem to give a hoot about turning themselves out in any kind of formal way for a show. Hell, they hardly dress up for anything! The "casual Friday" look at work has stretched to encompass the entire week. At a time when fashion columnists are writing about the death of fashion, large segments of the hoi-polloi seem not to differentiate between "casual" and "sloppy."

Dressing to the nines for movies or sports events has rarely or never been a custom, of course. Some racing events, yes: Saratoga, Louisville, Ascot, Henley. But spiffing up for the theater -- as well as for concerts, opera, and ballet -- used to be the custom. Men in suits and ties and women in fancy ensembles were the thing for decades. First nights required black tie or sometimes even white tie for men, jewelry and furs for women. Cole and Linda Lee Porter, with their soigné crowd trailing them, were the epitome of that kind of theatergoer. The image of Max Bialystock decked out in opera cape and fedora for the opening scene of The Producers reflects a now half-forgotten period.

Today, people apparently think it's perfectly fine to go to a show only dressed to the twos or threes. They're content to show up in whatever they put on in the morning and, in extreme cases, they look as if they're wearing what they had on when they went to sleep the night before. This kind of loosey-goosey dress code isn't confined to tourists or the bridge-and-tunnel crowd; Manhattan-based attendees are just as likely to pass under the marquee sans suit, sans tie, sans socks, sans just about anything but cargo shorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt that says "I Saw Moose Murders and Loved It." I knew the game was over when I traveled to a regional production a few summer weeks back and spotted a well-respected New York critic in sandals. (This, by the way, is someone who has made a habit of looking askance at other people's perceived breaches of literary or social etiquette.)

You may be inclined to ask: What's the big deal? So people don't look like Cole Porter's New Yorkers as they make their way down the aisle to their seats. What does that have to do with how they respond to what they see, how they take it in? Maybe there is no big deal. Perhaps people who are comfortable in their clothes respond better to what they're seeing. Furthermore, times change, and styles of dress are a significant part of that change. And there isn't much that could be done about the situation anyway. What producer would be foolish enough to instate a dress code when it's tough enough getting people into theaters these days?

Does the manner in which we dress for the theater dictate the theater we get, or does the theater we get dictate the manner in which we dress? Think for a moment about the chunk of time when New Yorkers donned their best bibs and tuckers to go to the Great White Way. In the '20s and '30s, with the exception of an O'Neill play or something by Odets, audiences were looking at boulevard comedies or dramas in which the people on stage had chichi wardrobes similar to those the observers had at home. The plays of Philip Barry or S.N. Behrman, for instance, reflected a great percentage of the audience, and the audience was a close copy of the play. Moreover, theater then was held in great regard. If theatergoing wasn't exactly the equivalent of worshiping at a shrine, it was near enough, and no one -- including the poor, who are always with us -- would ever think of going to church in less than his or her Sunday best.

You don't see much of this
at the theater anymore!
It could be held that such lighthearted, not to say lightweight, fare existed simply to flatter the upper class, to reassure it of its ineffable sophistication and wit. It took O'Neill and other playwrights eventually influenced by him to shake ticket buyers from their complacency. Considered from that perspective, the smart look of audiences well into the '50s, when Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were writing, could be viewed as a function of self-satisfaction and, therefore, not a persuasive argument for a return to the dressed-to-kill doctrine. If that's the judgment, then today's theater get-ups might be seen as an encouraging affirmation that patrons are cognizant of the more democratic issues dealt with by contemporary playwrights. Going to the theater is no longer considered a pastime for the privileged, and isn't that a good thing?

Or is it something altogether different? Is the trend toward dressing down an off-shoot of the penchant nowadays for dumbing down? Many of today's shows cater to audiences for whom language expertly manipulated -- that staple of all theater that owes a debt to Greek tragedy and Elizabethan tradition -- is no longer of much interest. To the contrary, adherence to a broad and even playful vocabulary might even be interpreted as elitist and untrustworthy, the strategy of people trying to pull a fast one.

I had an epiphany when I saw the London production of Jerry Springer -- The Opera, in which the blunt words uttered and blared didn't so much parody the real TV show on which it's based as replicate it. The audience looked very much like the actors who were playing a typical Jerry Springer aggregate. Maybe the prevalent appearance of today's theater patrons is just another case of life imitating art imitating life.

There may already be signs of the next wave in dressing for the theater. Reports are coming in that, because of the current unemployment situation, increasingly competitive hopefuls are dressing more seriously. And, hey, what about the possibilities of the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy generation and the accompanying Carson Kressley factor? The metrosexual men whose closets the fluttery Kressley has restocked appear to be reaping romantic rewards; this could have an effect on K-Mart and Wal-Mart shoppers, and an increasingly dapper approach to dress may eventually extend to theatergoing. Perhaps, in turn, this will affect how playwrights write about their audiences -- and how audiences are influenced by plays.

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