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?