Remember those days as a strapping young lad when your parents would announce with Ozzie and Harriet-like pride that they were taking you out “somewhere special” to celebrate a birthday, a straight-A report card or a home-run hit? Those rare times when you didn’t mind getting gussied up, spit-polishing your saddle shoes and donning that Kennedy-esque blue blazer with the brass buttons? Even though you probably ordered off the kids’ menu, they were elegant moments to cherish.
Well, cling to those memories tightly. Over the past several years, the dress codes abided and enforced at those ceremonies of formality and occasion, at everywhere from fine-dining restaurants to evening soirées, have become mostly unspoken, unwritten or loosened like so many Hermès ties. And just as these rules—that for so many years were out of favor—disappear, a new generation of formality-loving dandies is choosing (not being told) to dress up.
Some say the casual-Friday-everyday mandate came from the top: the White House. When President Obama took office in 2009, he quickly declared the end of George W. Bush’s jacket-and-tie requirement for staffers and the policy of no jeans, sneakers, miniskirts, tank tops or flip-flops for visitors.
Now, from Manhattan to L.A., the majority of the iconic old-school restaurants that once mandated jackets and ties for men have replaced “required” with “requested.” At the iconic Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel—a second home to Hollywood’s elite since 1912—the once strictly enforced dress code is now “no tank-tops after 10 p.m.” “A few years ago, we had a ‘no-baseball-caps’ policy after 7 p.m.,” said a Polo Lounge manager, “but after Steven Spielberg was turned away for wearing one, we dropped the policy, like, the next day.” Other proper-attire outposts such as Houston’s Da Marco and Baltimore’s The Prime Rib have also recently replaced their jacket-and-tie requirements, with “business casual” encouraged. Some mainstays are simply opening their doors entirely to the sportswear-favoring public.
To gentlemen of certain generations and upbringings, the floodgates broke three years ago, when Manhattan’s hallowed ’21’ Club restaurant—the stiff-shirted shrine of continental dress codes, which has hosted U.S. presidents since it opened in 1922—dropped its necktie-at-dinner rule. Jackets remain required; sneakers and blue jeans are unwelcome. The results, however, are tangible: profits have increased (although a scant 20% of male ’21’ customers arrive tie-less), and its fabled wine cellar hasn’t caved.
For most formal establishments, recent apparel relaxations are a matter of economics, priorities and pragmatism. In these tight-pocketed times, restaurants don’t have the luxury of imposing rules. And, after the initial shock, it is reasoned that most fine-dining regulars who enjoyed “the rules” will come to accept the inevitable. The world isn’t their Oysters Rockefeller anymore. Old money’s out, and the Converse-sneaker-clad social networkers are in.
Steve Cuozzo, the New York Post’s restaurant critic, said that many formal-attire eateries in Manhattan today “are so desperate for business they’d probably let Times Square’s Naked Cowboy in.” He added that hoteliers are partially to blame for fine dining’s messy dressers. “A driver of the slob look now is the proliferation of major restaurants housed in hotels,” he said. “Hotels won’t make demands on guests with money to spend.”
Bryan McGuire, the general manager of ’21’ Club, agreed that the current economy has forced a reality check on haute hospitality. “I was looking at a Zagat a few years ago, and I saw an asterisk by our listing noting we were the only Manhattan restaurant with a necktie requirement.” (Mr. McGuire, it should be noted, wears a tie to Yankees games.) “That the Four Seasons and Le Bernardin—our competitors—no longer did, made me realize we were putting ourselves at a disadvantage. We had to bend, but not break, our dress codes to what was being dictated to us by corporate America; to give the customers, the lawyers and investment bankers what they wanted.”
But something inexplicable has been lost. Mr. McGuire, now in his 23rd year at ’21,’ seems to lament the new leniency, and the inelegance of it all. “People still care how a person is dressed to the left and to the right of them,” he said, reveling in the days when even underdressed celebrities were urged to wear a house necktie or take it elsewhere. Baseball player Pete Rose once reportedly whined, “You make me wear a tie, and you don’t even have carpeting!”
Robert Caravaggi, co-owner of Swifty’s—the Upper East Side refuge for “Bonfire of the Vanities” author Tom Wolfe’s “social X-rays”—recounts the day in the mid-’70s when Burt Reynolds came into his father Bruno’s fabled-and-gone New York restaurant, Quo Vadis, wearing an open collar, sans jacket. Mr. Reynolds was there to be interviewed by Andy Warhol, a regular who favored blazers and bow ties. The actor refused to wear a loaner jacket. “It was a situation,” Mr. Caravaggi said. “My father didn’t want to offend Mr. Warhol.” It was finally decided that Mr. Reynolds could stay. But to hear his son tell it, the dispute may as well have been the nail in Western civilization’s coffin.
“The death of dressing accordingly isn’t the end of civilization,” said Mr. Wolfe, who is now 80 and universally identified by his white three-piece suits. “But it is the end of courage—men being afraid to be caught in fancy clothes, or even a jacket.” Mr. Wolfe grew up in Richmond, Va., among gentlemen who wore hats with seersucker suits, their shirts buttoned to the top, “even during hellish summers with no air conditioning,” he said. “They’d be mopping their brows, but they were not going to loosen their neckties. That’s how much maintaining decorum meant to them—you have to suffer for style.”
Dress-code mandates or not, Mr. Wolfe continued, the benefits to formal dressing outweigh the negatives. “You’ll look terrific, and miles above those slobs. And you’ll get more respect. Formal dress really has social impact. You’ll be treated with greater deference than the 45-year-old guy dressed like a rock drummer.”
Author and journalist Gay Talese, Mr. Wolfe’s old friend and sartorial equal, feels similarly. At 79, he refuses to falter in looking his best—his one concession is wearing “slip-on loafers” to fly, then changing into better shoes upon landing. Dining out six nights a week, “of course I’m aware of what people eating around me are looking like,” he said. “I’m mostly appalled! It’s amazing they get past the maître d’…let alone me. I think, why aren’t you at a baseball game, or eating popcorn somewhere? Anywhere but here.”
Mr. Talese does concede that’s he’s not necessarily aligned with the times. “Now I’m an old guy, a retro fellow, maybe even stuffy. But dressing conscientiously is exalting in the act of being alive. When you go out on the town, it’s an act of celebration…that you’re here.”
As it happens, the art of looking sharp could be saved by a new subculture of metropolitan men, aged loosely from 25 to 40, who have an affinity for a new-old hybrid of sartorial swagger. With fetishistic glee, they’re following how-to-dress blogs and websites for men such as Mr. Porter, A Continuous Lean and The Selvedge Yard, and formal-informal designers like Billy Reid, Michael Bastian’s Gant, Freemans Sporting Club and Band of Outsiders. Their appropriated tastes are inspired, though, more by ’60s idols like Bryan Ferry and Steve McQueen than their own grandfathers.
Tyler Thoreson, 38, the editor of the bespoke-favoring website Gilt Manual, believes “what we’re seeing is a rebellion against our fathers, and the casual baby-boomer generation. Younger men are suddenly seeing the value of looking good. It’s not about a restaurant dictating what they should wear—if there are no rules, create your own.” He continued, “They’re arriving at this idea on their own and celebrities like Justin Timberlake are helping. Ten years ago he was in a denim suit, now he’s wearing the ‘classics.’ ”
Catering to this new sartorial set are a growing number of postspeakeasy nightclubs and bars wafting with a like-minded nostalgia for how things used to be done: when bartenders made “real drinks,” and considered their profession a respectable, well-honed craft. At places like the Edison, a swing-era-themed boîte in downtown Los Angeles, “cocktail attire” is unspoken but abided. “We’re counter to the casual Hollywood vibe,” said Edison principal Barbara Jacobs. “Dressing up makes the experience more enjoyable.”
These establishments tip their fedoras to many of the old haunts that have now eased their rules—and to some that have not. At the 105-year-old New Orleans restaurant Galatoire’s, a weathered plaque on the edifice reads: “Proper Attire Required: Jackets after 5 p.m. and All Day Sunday; Long Pants for Lunch Tues.-Sun.” And that’s the way it will stay, according to John Georges, the principal owner of the French Creole cuisine stronghold. “New Orleans is a town of traditions, with deep respect for them,” he said. “We’re not going to change because of the needs of out-of-towners, or because of the dressing trends of the day,” Mr. Georges said. “If you stick to your principles it pays off—in whatever economy.” In other words, some things never go out of style. A point that will certainly hit home as a new generation of wing-tipped Taleses and Wolfes hit the town, showing everyone how it’s done, again.