Dress codes are back. We’ve been living in tracksuits and pyjamas for the past few months as we work from home and socialise on Zoom - but the long-awaited reopening of bars and restaurants has brought with it a necessity for ‘proper’ clothes; the kind we used to wear when going ‘out out’.
And, despite having been closed for over three months, some high-end establishments are refusing to compromise on this. Take an incident this week at Sexy Fish, a high-end sushi restaurant in London’s Mayfair. When the pop singer Jess Glynne arrived to enjoy a meal with a friend, she was told by staff that she couldn’t dine there because her outfit (a hoodie, tracksuit bottoms and trainers) didn’t adhere to the dress code.
In an Instagram post complaining about the exchange, Glynne remarked that Sexy Fish had been empty, and yet two members of staff had 'looked her up and down' before dismissing her outfit as inappropriate.
Now, I’m not saying I’d turn up to Sexy Fish, or any other restaurant with a dress code, in a tracksuit and expect it to pass muster - as a fashion editor I’d relish the opportunity to wear nice clothes on any opportunity, even if I have become rather wedded to my Sweaty Betty yoga pants of late. But it is fascinating that a restaurant would turn away any customer, in any attire, when the whole hospitality industry is on its knees after lockdown.
Despite all the grand reopenings of restaurants and pubs at the weekend, many of us are yet to go back out for a meal. The situation is so severe that Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced yesterday that pubs and restaurants would be eligible for a huge VAT cut (down from from 20 percent to 5 percent) and a £500 million dining discount scheme in his ‘mini Budget’ - an unprecedented effort to save the struggling industry from collapse.
What’s more, a celebrity like Glynne - who has 798,000 followers on Instagram and 393,000 on Twitter - has the potential to provide a restaurant with valuable publicity through social media posts, helping to generate more reservations, when it needs it most.
For Richard Corrigan, chef and owner of Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, the idea of turning away any guest is madness. "If a central London restaurant is turning away custom at this point of time, then they’re clearly off their rocker," he says. "I appreciate that a guest turning up for their booking in gym gear or pyjamas may cause a stir with other clients, however, the industry, especially the West End, needs the support now more than ever."
But Sexy Fish is not alone in maintaining strict dress codes post-lockdown. One colleague, who dined at 5 Hertford Street on Wednesday night for a friend’s 50th birthday, said her party was also reprimanded for flouting the rules. “It was a massive treat to be out and exciting to be in a beautiful dining room celebrating,” she said. “But the air conditioning was fierce so I borrowed my husband's jacket to keep me warm. When he got up to go to the loo, a waiter told him he wasn't allowed to walk around the room without a jacket on so he had to get it back off me.”
Many, including those who work at high-end establishments, might argue that dress codes are part of the experience. “Diners who favour restaurants at the luxury end of the market do so on the understanding a smart dress code is common practice,” says Antony Rettie, founder of AKA Communications which represents restaurants including Hakkasan, Yauatcha and Oblix at the Shard.
“Those who enjoy sceney dining rooms are often doing business, or celebrating a special occasion, a part of which involves taking pleasure in dressing up. It can be disappointing to guests when investing in premium restaurant meals, to see fellow diners who have opted not to dress in a smart-casual manner.”
Of course, after weeks upon weeks of dressing in our most comfortable clothes, the return to formalwear will prove a struggle for some, and we might see the 'new casual' approach effect how people dress in general going forward. We’ve become so used to seeing our colleagues makeup-free and in tees instead of shirts, it’s inevitable that we’ll come to accept more relaxed attire as normal post-lockdown.
This is only the latest step in an evolving casualisation of what we wear. Over the past few years, streetwear and athleisure influences have been creeping into catwalk looks. Now almost every designer brand has its own take on a hoodie or trainers, blurring the lines between sportswear and high fashion. It’s only set to become more prevalent, too: the global streetwear market is believed to generate $185 billion in annual sales according to a report from Hypebeast and Strategy&, representing around 10 percent of the global apparel and footwear market.
In fact, it could be that restaurants are the ones that need to catch up. Last year Bottega Veneta creative director Daniel Lee, one of fashion’s most influential tastemakers right now, was provided with a jacket to wear over his white t-shirt by an unnamed Mayfair restaurant while being interviewed for Vogue.
Rettie understands this, and acknowledges that there have never been more restaurants that accept and encourage those who dress casually than there are today. “There are many great examples, the bulk of which are located in east London, where a guest spending £100 per head could feel very out of place in a jacket and tie,” he says.
But for more traditional establishments, it seems dress codes are here to stay. “It's not unreasonable for venues, which tend to be very transparent about dress codes, to request guests adhere to them,” he says. “Sexy Fish was probably right to turn away a guest based on her appearance, and the fact she was a celebrity wouldn't affect that decision given its VIP-heavy clientele. With super-premium Mayfair restaurants specifically, it's highly unlikely they would need to consider relaxing any dress code policies, even at a time when restaurants need customers more than ever.”
When Corrigan reopens Bentley's on 1st October though, there's no way he'll be turning away guests. "At the end of the day, we’re in the business of showing people a great time," he says. "Who really cares about someone wearing trainers?"