Dressing for the opera

The uninitiated often imagine opera as a world of tuxedos and floor-length ball gowns. As someone who loves to wear and be surrounded by elegant clothing, I sometimes wish that picture were accurate. But current and aspiring opera-goers can rest easy in the knowledge that, in fact, almost anything goes at most opera houses these days. Dress codes tend to be pretty loose (more on that in a moment), and audiences embrace the freedom they’re given. At my most recent opera excursion (to Seattle Opera’s Ring cycle), my fellow audience members wore a comically wide variety of outfits. I saw men in white tie, black tie, business suits, jeans, and shorts with flip-flops. Women wore everything from floor-length evening gowns and opera-length gloves to short, casual skirts or jeans. There were also some elegant hats on display. And because this was a Ring cycle, there was no shortage of opera-themed outfits, including the subtle (raven- or dragon-themed jewelry on the appropriate evenings) and the not-so-subtle (horned and braided helmets, which are especially amusing when paired with otherwise-formal attire).

White tie and an evening gown (plus a giant stole)--not what one usually sees at the opera nowadays!
White tie and an evening gown (plus a giant stole)–not what one usually sees at the opera nowadays!

If, like me, you’re fond of dressing formally, the most traditional dress code for the opera is black tie. (Technically, white tie is acceptable for opening nights, but who owns white tie?) For men, this means a tuxedo or dinner jacket and black bow tie, with all the usual accompanying clothing pieces and accessories. (I’m by no means an expert on men’s formalwear, so look elsewhere for specific instructions.) Women’s attire has always been a little less strictly regulated than men’s, but an elegantly cut dress between knee-length and floor-length is usually considered equivalent (as, of course, is a women’s tuxedo). I personally wear long dresses with opera-length (above-the-elbow) gloves for evening operas but dress less formally for matinees.

However, as I mentioned before, few people nowadays adhere to the tradition of dressing formally for the opera, and almost nowhere requires it. Here are the dress codes or guidelines for a few of the world’s most famous opera houses:

The Metropolitan Opera (New York, USA): “There is no dress code at the Met. People tend to dress more formally for Galas or openings of new productions, but this is optional. We recommend comfortable clothing appropriate for a professional setting.”

Teatro alla Scala (Milan, Italy): “Gentlemen are advised to wear black suit for premiere and are in any case always advised to to wear a jacket and tie. In general, we ask that you wear clothing that is in keeping with the decorum of the opera house.”

Royal Opera House (London, UK): “There is no dress code – feel free to dress up or down.”

One reason major opera houses now keep dress codes loose is that they’re tourist attractions, and tourists don’t particularly want to have to return to their hotels to change for the opera or–even worse–wander around the city in black tie clothing all day! A further practical consideration is standing room: Many houses sell standing room tickets, and it’s wise to wear comfortable clothing and footwear if you’ll be standing for the entire opera.

Whether you lament the passing of a more elegant age at the opera or welcome the freedom of wearing whatever you want to performances, you should know that the question of what constitutes appropriate clothing for the opera is by no means a new one, even if the details of the debate have changed somewhat in the past century. Below, for your amusement, is a fabulous letter penned by George Bernard Shaw to The Times after a particularly annoying night at the Royal Opera House:

July 3, 1905


The Opera management of Covent Garden regulates the dress of its male patrons. When is it going to do the same to the women?

On Saturday night I went to the Opera. I wore the costume imposed on me by the regulations of the house. I fully recognize the advantage of those regulations. Evening dress is cheap, simple, durable, prevents rivalry and extravagance on the part of male leaders of fashion, annihilates class distinctions and gives men who are poor and doubtful of their social position (that is, the great majority of men) a sense of security and satisfaction that no clothes of their own choosing could confer, besides saving a whole sex the trouble of considering what they should wear on state occasions. The objections to it are as dust in the balance in the eyes of the ordinary Briton. These objections are that it is colourless; that it involves a whitening process that makes the shirt troublesome, slightly uncomfortable, and seriously unclean; that it acts as a passport for undesirable persons; that it fails to guarantee sobriety, cleanliness, and order on the part of the wearer; and that it reduces to a formula a very vital human habit which should be the subject of constant experiment and active private enterprise. All such objections are thoroughly un-English. They appeal only to an eccentric few, and may be left out of account with the fantastic objections of men like Ruskin, Tennyson, Carlyle, and Morris to tall hats.

But I submit that what is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose. Every argument that applies to the regulation of the man’s dress applies equally to the regulation of the woman’s. Now let me describe what actually happened to me at the Opera. Not only was I in evening dress by compulsion, but I voluntarily added many graces of conduct as to which the management made no stipulation whatever. I was in my seat in time for the first chord of the overture. I did not chatter during the music nor raise my voice when the Opera was too loud for normal conversation. I did not get up and go out when the statue music began. My language was fairly moderate considering the number and nature of the improvements on Mozart volunteered by Signor Caruso, and the respectful ignorance of dramatic points of the score exhibited by the conductor and stage manager — if there is such a functionary at Covent Garden. In short, my behavior was exemplary.

At 9 o’clock (the Opera began at 8) a lady came in and sat down very conspicuously in my line of sight. She remained there until the beginning of the last act. I do not complain of her coming late and going early; on the contrary, I wish she had come later and gone earlier. For this lady, who had very black hair, had stuck over her right ear the pitiable corpse of a large white bird, which looked exactly if someone had killed it by stamping on the beast, and then nailed it to the lady’s temple, which was presumably of sufficient solidity to bear the operation. I am not, I hope, a morbidly squeamish person; but the spectacle sickened me. I presume that if I had presented myself at the doors with a dead snake round my neck, a collection of black beetles pinned to my shirtfront, and a grouse in my hair, I should have been refused admission. Why, then is a woman to be allowed to commit such a public outrage? Had the lady been refused admission, as she should have been, she would have soundly rated the tradesman who imposed the disgusting headdress on her under the false pretence that ‘the best people’ wear such things, and withdrawn her custom from him; and thus the root of the evil would be struck at; for your fashionable woman generally allows herself to be dressed according to the taste of a person who she would not let sit down in her presence. I once, in Drury Lane Theatre, sat behind a matinee hat decorated with the two wings of a seagull, artificially reddened at the joints so as to produce the illusion of being freshly plucked from a live bird. But even that lady stopped short of a whole seagull. Both ladies were evidently regarded by their neighbors as ridiculous and vulgar; but that is hardly enough when the offence is one which produces a sensation of physical sickness in persons of normal human sensibility.

I suggest to the Covent Garden authorities that, if they feel bound to protect their subscribers against the dangers of my shocking them with a blue tie, they are at least equally bound to protect me against the danger of a woman shocking me with a dead bird.

Yours truly,

G. Bernard Shaw