Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dressing For Dinner

On Friday I received an evening to a formal dinner with the stipulation: “Black Tie or Lounge Suit”.

What an appalling choice. Wear the former, and I could be the only penguin in the room; people might hail me and ask for bottles of mineral water. Yet if I opt for the latter I’ll be sure to be the only one who hasn’t been to Moss Bros. Women have it so much easier these days. They want to look different; men just need to look the same.

That’s why in the old days men wore uniform from school to the grave. Short trousers till 12, caps till the Sixth Form, black tie for dinner: life was regimented and stable. This deregulation is utterly stressful for males like me who are incapable of dressing themselves – or so my wife claims.

At least going out to a nice restaurant just meant putting on a jacket and tie. No longer, apparently. According to a report I read yesterday, none of Britain’s top 100 restaurants now require men to wear jackets and ties. Our region only has two restaurants in that heady echelon (as defined by the 2009 National Restaurant Awards): Secco and Café 21. Thankfully both seem perfectly happy to feed me despite my jeans and loafers.

Years ago I was taken for dinner to the Savoy Hotel and, sitting in the bar, was accosted by the head waiter who firmly but politely hissed in my ear, “Will Sir be dining with us tonight?”

As I was clutching his menu, I should have thought the answer was fairly obvious, but I bit my tongue and replied “I rather hope so”. “Does Sir have a tie?”

No, Sir certainly did not: he had a designer shirt and a bespoke suit, but no tie. Sir was not to worry: the cloakroom attendant could sort him out. So, like a naughty five year old, I was sent to the toilet.

Surrounded by bottles of aftershave, ivory-backed clothes brushes and clean white towels, the man produced a battered wooden box from under the counter. Inside was a collection of the scruffiest ties I had ever seen. There were gravy-stained mementos of old boys’ associations, rugby clubs, and the sort of pink and blue things that signify the uniform of solicitors, accountants and estate agents: all quite horrendous. I don’t know how the Savoy had accumulated these monstrosities over the years, but I could see why their owners no longer missed them.

Trying to appear nonchalant, I selected the least grim affair, a stripy gold and grey object, too broad to be modern, but passable with my blue shirt. “A popular choice,” said the old man, as he pocketed my pound coin tip. “Do you get many people without ties, then?” I asked. “A few – mostly actors”, he said dismissively. “We had an artist in here last week. Hockney, his name was. He chose that same tie you’re wearing”. I swaggered into dinner.

Until last year I belonged to one of London’s oldest clubs, The Athenaeum. I finally resigned when the membership voted, for the umpteenth time, against modernising its dress code. The club only admitted women a couple of years ago, and then only after fierce debate within its crusty membership. I only used it once a year when I needed to impress my bank manager. It was also the only day I ever wore a tie. Now I take the manager to Grouchos and intimidate him with tie-less celebrities.

The fact is, places that make you dress up normally manage to combine boring food with dull clientele. The best restaurant in the world, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, has no dress code: the owner says to wear whatever makes you comfortable.

But that’s the problem: why do I still only feel comfortable wearing the same as everyone else?


Unknown said...

I sense the sound of someone on the verge of a hissy fit normally seen in the boudoir of a woman as she tries fruitlessly to find something to wear in a wardrobe full of clothes.

Hope you enjoy your dinner regardless.

Diney said...

Last time we popped into the Savoy to have a pre theatre drink I was amazed at how many people were there in jeans and t shirts - just for drinks, true, but it had lost the exclusivity of former years - not sure if that was a good thing or not. There's a difference between jeans and filthy, half mast jeans that look dirty and sweaty t shirts, if you know what I mean! So much competition nowadays I guess, they can't afford to be so snooty and turn away any custom. I agree that too strict a dress code is stuffy and attracts boring old farts (you didn't actually say that, I know!). Thought I'd just pop in - I live in Northumberland too! Hope you've bought extra layers for the winter ahead!

Tom Gutteridge said...

The extra layers are already out. Jo called me this afternoon to ask me how to switch the heating on.

Poor, frozen Californian. I'd seen the forecast last night (cold and bright - a wonderful clear sunny Northumbrian day), but had forgotten it also meant that our 17th century farmhouse, whose huge walls have managed to avoid any penetration of heat this summer, would instantly retreat to its winter mode where, unless you close the shutters before sunset and light a huge fire, icicles quickly form on the sofas. The temperature has dropped like a stone - I'd better alert the oil company to make sure it gets in extra reserves for our winter needs.

According to Jo's best friend Marla, it was 90 degrees back in Los Angeles yesterday. Homesick doesn't begin to describe her feelings right now. And she reminded me that you can wear shorts and t-shirts in the smartest places, even in January. I didn't wear a tie for four years - except a black one at the Emmys. We didn't win.