Another thing we have in common with the airline industry: attire.

I have a travel outfit.

I sleep on planes (sometimes more than I do at home), so I snuggle up in a pair of cozy track pants, the softest and loosest long sleeve shirt I can find, and a sweatshirt that sometimes doubles as a pillow.

I am wearing that ensemble right this second as I prepare to board a red eye from Portland to JFK.  And as I look around the terminal, everyone else looks pretty casually dressed as well.  Some, to be honest, look pretty sloppily dressed.

But that wasn’t always the case, now was it?

Used to be that you dressed up to fly.  Remember that?  It was a high class event to board a plane, and it deserved the respect of a nice outfit, maybe even a tie . . . but certainly not track pants.

See where I’m going with this?

Used to be the same thing for the theater.

It’s really quite amazing how trends in the airline industry parallel so many of the trends in our industry.  Premium seating, intense discounting, high priced union labor . . . and even dress.

Obviously, it’s more practical to dress more casually when traveling, especially long ways, and especially on red eyes.

And, dressing more casually requires less effort and is more comfortable if you’re going to the theater as well, right?

But here’s the rub . . . dressing up actually helps assign a greater value (and yes, a higher price) to the experience.  Seeing a bunch of suits and dresses make other attendees believe that they are at a higher class function.  And higher class functions are more expensive by definition (think Galas, Black Tie events, Weddings, etc., etc. ).

So, if more of your audience is dressing up, they are probably more willing to pay a higher ticket price . . . just because the value seems higher.

I’m not saying you’d see some kind of massive uptick in full price sales if you had a dress code at your theater (and we’d have to be careful about audience attrition if they didn’t feel like they belonged), but I do wonder if as unofficial dress codes in this country disappeared, discounting started to pop up at the same time.  (I don’t have that timeline data, but it feels like they occurred at similar times, doesn’t it?)

People are not price resistant.  They are value resistant.  If we want people to pay our prices (which are high and always will be high), we have to make sure the value of the experience is even higher.  We do that by making great shows, first and foremost.  But the environment our theatergoers are in can have more of an effect than we think.

I’m going to make an effort to dress better when I go to the theater from now on.  Who’s with me?

 

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Comments
  • Adam says:

    Not dressing up isn’t the only thing that diminishes the experience. Allowing people to buy candy and rattle the wrappers (hey, we need the money), and to tweet and text during the performance (hey, we need the social media buzz – there’s always some excuse) makes sitting there and paying attention to the show – and allowing others to do so without any distractions – optional. As a woman told me at Ghost (in London), “Your telling us to stop talking is interfering with OUR enjoyment of being here!”

  • Sara says:

    My mother taught me to dress nicely for theater as a kid, and I’ve done it ever since. One time I suggested that I wear jeans to go see a show and she looked at me with a horrified grimace, saying “you will not be accompanying me should you do so.”

  • Personally, I like dressing up for the theatre (it makes it more of an event, especially when you add a nice dinner before). However, as someone who has escorted many high school tour groups to NYC, it is hard to find the time to change from street clothes after a long day of touring (especially of your hotel is not on Times Square- ours is usually across the Hudson). Since so much of the Broadway theater trade is tourist driven, a casual dress code is, I think, a necessity.

  • Doug says:

    Getting all your friends/colleagues who collaborated with you on a show to dress up on opening night to a small theatre show really raises the bar and creates a significant uptick of professionalism in the room. Just like stacking the house, it’d be another way to help woo critics attending the performance. Critics or not, it’s certainly a great way to elevate small productions, but it’d be great to see masses dressing up once again on Broadway.

  • Amy Leigh says:

    I dress up as a show of respect and support for everyone involved in a production – community, high school, Broadway, wherever. That’s why I wore a ballgown to the Godspell preview I attended. Many people (including Ken, Danny, and Chris) commended me on my attempt to bring back the old Broadway glamour and wished they saw it more often. Plenty of women said they wished they could have worn something like that and I wanted to say that there was nothing stopping them. If I could walk 20 blocks dressed like that to get there, anybody can. It’s the arts, have fun with it.

  • There is an episode of I Love Lucy where she gets a trophy stuck on her head. Ethel finds a place on Bleaker Street that can help get it off, but Lucy refuses to go via subway because she is wearing blue jeans. She insists on wearing a dress

  • Kathleen says:

    The most casual I get when I am going to the theater is business casual. That means for me a dress and dress shoes. As I am usually alone there is minimal jewelry. The plastic bags and cups with ice drive me crazy. I have told talkers they can purchase my ticket and I will leave if they want to continue to talk. The Kennedy Center has a list of don’t in its program guide. I would like that read just prior to the start of each show.

  • Larry Starr says:

    Frankly, more important than even an “informal” dress code in getting more people to the theater is to make the theaters themselves more hospitable (not that that is going to be easy). Uncomfortable seats are probably the most significant detraction, but seats sold with bad sight lines can turn off a newbie forever. Notice how “stadium seating” for movie theaters has become the norm; not by chance.

  • Marina Barry says:

    YES PLEASE! Let’s all dress up when we go to the theatre like everyone used to. Not only does it make a rather extraordinary event even that much more special, we as actors and theatre artists, honor our fellow actors, the play, the theatre itself when we take a moment to spruce up. Let’s show the tourists the way to dress – not in cut offs and track suits holding a Starbucks – this isn’t a drive in for god’s sake – IT’S THE THEATRE!!!!

  • Annie Bridges says:

    I agree! I just got back from taking some of my high school theatre students to three Broadway shows. One guy outside a theatre asked if it was our prom night (which made this 31-year-old happy) and seemed shocked when I said we were going to a musical. We were just in skirts and dresses, not evening gowns! I just know the money for the tickets was a HUGE financial sacrifice for my Title 1 students, and I wanted them to feel like princesses! Dressing up is part of the experience!

  • Marshall says:

    I wouldn’t think of attending a theatrical event without at LEAST a sports coat. And most usually suit and tie. Count me in for your posse!

  • Ilene says:

    I agree, Ken. In fact, I think I’m going to follow your lead and step my attire up a notch. I actually coordinate my outfit to the show I’m seeing. Something more upscale, like Porgy & Bess, will bring out a dressier outfit, where something more participatory and fun, like Godspell, might invoke a NICE jeans outfit (but NEVER t-shirts or sweatshirts!). I, too, have noticed the discounting and attire seem to be timed closely. I’ve also noticed, at least in Los Angeles, that theatres who sell candy at intermission (like the Pantages), tend to have noisier and more casual audiences too!

  • Sue says:

    Ken, have you been to church lately? I can’t believe what people wear. Not sure how the “value” theory fits in with regards to church. But I do think that, like abortion rights, there is no going back on loosened dress codes.

    I won’t fly in anything but loose clothing (although it is well-designed loose clothing), even in first class.

  • KZL says:

    As someone I admire says, it’s not “Yes, BUT,’ it’s “Yes, AND.” So yes, it would be nice if we dressed up a little more for the theatre, AND in addition to the fact that, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile,” I’d say that someone can be wearing black-tie attire and still come across as crass. It’s attitude (and courtesy) that makes the man, not clothes.

    • Laurent says:

      The other day I saw Newsies. The gentleman ahead of me in the rest room line was wearing oversized shorts and an oversized T-shirt. Basically what I’d wear if I were to wash a car. I was just appalled and it reminded me of getting house seats for my parents to see Titanic on Broadway. When I asked my father what he thought of it, he told me, “The man next to me was wearing cut off jeans.” And that had to have been probably 15 years ago! Its just so sad!

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    People dress down for the theatre for the same reason they do on airlines: tiny seats with no legroom. It is almost unbearable even when dressed comfortably.

    • Sharon Coleman says:

      You have said it all. To assert that the audience should continue to dress in an elegant manner to make and event one of value when most of us ache for hours after paying $150 to sit with our legs crammed into someone’s back and our bodies twisted to achieve and maintain a posture that enables us to breathe without rubbing shoulders or fighting for armrests is to ignore the fact that producers place no value on audience members — only on their cash.

  • Well, I am afraid I have to respectfully offer a different perspective on this point. Rather than do anything that makes the theater fell less welcoming and more elitist, I think one of our biggest challenges is to move that needle in the opposite direction. Our prices ARE too high…since studies show that only about 8 -10 % of the population goes to a Live Arts event in a year, we should be working to draw in the the other 90% as well as making it possible for more of those who want to come but who can’t afford a week’s salary for a two hour show with their family. People watch movies more than once, they watch reruns on TV, they re-read their favorite books…many more would come to the theater if the prices were more reasonable. It should be an experience for everyone…there is no dress code at a football game and they are selling pretty well…I do agree that the comfort of the seating and experience also plays into the question of people’s enjoyment. So, come to our theater in your shorts and flip flops if you want…BUT COME TO OUR THEATER!

  • Jeanne Thomas says:

    I love dressing up for the theater and for concerts and I feel as though it enhances my experience as I am prepared for a wonderful time. I also feel it is respectful of the vast amount of work and skill which has gone into the event I am about to witness, much as the architecture of the theater and the demeanor of the front of house staff affects my experience. That being said however, I have seen great performances in tiny, casual circumstances and have enjoyed the theater’s attitude of drinks and food in the house: have a good time. I am however, concerned about the price of Broadway tickets. I know it is an expensive venture, I am on the producing, directing, acting side, but if only one segment of the population can afford to attend…that is not good. It is not good for the culture, the people, or the theater in the long run. I often am only able to see shows (and I am a very educated audience member,who is willing to tell all my friends) because I usher or have discounted tickets. There needs to be ways of developing audiences among the less well to do so they can become regular patrons and not just once a year or once every several years. May the best of fortune attend to the theater and its workers, Jeanne

  • Michael DiGaetano says:

    I’m old enough to remember dressing nicely to fly. Now it’s like being on a Greyhound bus at 30,000 feet. it’s sad. But I will continue to dress well for both theatre and for flying

  • Alan B. says:

    I remember that I used to wear a tie and jacket and a fedora when I went to Yankee Stadium when I was a kid.

    When I was a high school teacher in the late 60’s I was required to wear a suit and tie to work. One day I showed up in a blue blazer, white shirt, grey slacks and a red tie and the principal called me down to the office for not being dressed properly. I was warned that if I ever did that again that my contract would not be renewed the following year.

    And why did I deviate from the normal dress code? Because the 2 suits I owned were both dropped off at the cleaners on Friday after school. I thought that my wife was going to pick them up on Saturday and she thought that I was going to pick them up on Saturday! Somehow, we survived “her” mistake and we will be celebrating our 44th anniversary in December.

    I believe you are fighting a losing battle if you think you can turn back the clock. People will not go back to the old way of dressing up. I think you would lose more people who refuse to get dressed to go to the theater then you would gain from the people who would dress up and pay higher prices!

    I don’t miss dressing up and I don’t miss the rotary phone or black and white TV. I do miss teaching every now and then.

  • Greg Everett says:

    Long ago, I worked for the airlines … when Pan Am actually existed as an airline and not a television show. So, it started with the flight crew. Notice how they arrive at the gates today to their assigned flights? Unfortunately, many look like they flew overnight and weren’t provided with a mirror. So, I feel it starts with the base. Example: When an international Pan Am crew arrived to the gate. They arrived as a team. Perfectly groomed! Not a scarf was out of place. And heels! Yes. Even in flight. Perhaps they changed to a lower heel once the flight leveled off, but they were classy. There was always a phrase “Lips and Tips” which meant the female FA’s lip color always matched their nail color. Where am I going with this? Same place as Ken. Whether you flew economy (never called “coach” for that airline), business or first … the same classiness of the attendants made you feel like you didn’t mind paying those fares (not quite as low as they are these days). It was worth it.

    So, the same could happen in theatre, right? I’d like to see the running crew on the sound board dressed nicely as I enter instead of jeans. And I’d love to see an actual cast leave the theatre in something smart, dressy instead of ripped (from being worn, as opposed to fashionably ripped) jeans. No, not everyone waits for autographs, but many actually stand away to see the stars emerge.

    I learned a very wise lesson from my great aunt and she said it’s representative of people in life. “Trash is trash, no matter how it’s wrapped and no matter what time it goes out the door.”

    So, even if something is trash? Dress it up … and act the part. They are performers, that part is second nature.

    Prior to the official opening, I saw Nice Work If You Can Get It. I like sitting in the front mezz for musicals to watch choreography and lighting patterns on the floor (something that is sadly missed even in house seats). But, there was easily 100 high school students that arrived. The ladies were ALL in dresses or skirts and the men in shirts, ties and many donned jackets!

    I made it a point during intermission to find their leader to give him kudos on not only how well they dressed, but they acted classy, too.

    It’s rare … maybe we start with ourselves and have a come back.. oh wait.. wasn’t Norma Desmond’s line from Sunset Boulevard “A Return”?

    When a couple can easily spend minimally $400 for dining out and theatre, don’t we all deserve the same experience?

    Thanks for indulging me and allowing me to babble, if you got this far!

    Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damn Few!
    🙂

  • Jay Owe says:

    Seems to me, Ken, that you want to have your cake and eat it to. Would you prefer, the theatre going the way of Opera or Movies? Personally, I’d prefer it to attract and appeal to as many people as possible, no matter what they wear. What’s more important to you, fashion or theatre?
    PS Should the patrons themselves have to justify the exorbitant fees they pay by the way they dress?

  • Clair Sedore says:

    We go to the theatre a lot, and it is great to be comfortable, especially when the seats in the balcony are smaller and less leg room…if someone wants to sit beside me in a tuxedo, that is fine. My main objection these days are food and drink in the theatre, and number one is cell phones, people are more concerned about who may or may not have called, than what is on the stage, and I personally find this frightening. There is no such thing as “attention span” any longer. Most of the audience can hardly wait for intermission in case they missed an IMPORTANT call. Even during a play or musical, people are eyeing their cellphone “just in case.” I sometimes wonder why people go out to theatre or to dinner, as what is happening in their lives seems much more important!!!! I have been going to the theatre for over 50 years, and do not own a cell phone. My calls can wait for a land line when I am ready!

  • Tricia Ostermann says:

    I’ve always considered going to the theater an occasion to dress up, but I must admit there have been a few times where I’ve gone to a show on a whim, and I wasn’t prepared for a theater evening (i.e. I’ve been in jeans and tennis shoes). I felt guilty as hell the entire time I was there because of my dress. I like to dress up– it makes the experience more classy and shows appreciation to those putting on a show for us.
    When I first moved to New York, I worked the front of house for a few Broadway shows and was baffled by the attire people would arrive in. I remember a man came dressed as though he just came from the construction site (he was bringing his daughter to The Lion King, and didn’t feel the need to dress up for a “kids’ show”).
    Dress codes really are disappearing, and I find that sad. Heck, I just got a wedding invitation where the bride and groom specifically noted that denim could not be worn to the wedding or the reception. What?! Who would do that at a wedding? But there are people out there who would.
    We are losing our appreciation for the nice things in life. It’s time we take it back!

  • Jennifer J says:

    My Mom used to make me wear my little white gloves to the theatre and when flying.

    I don’t wear those gloves anymore.

    I try to look decent/put-together, would like to have time and funding for dressing up, but as an academic theatre person, there’s not a lot of budget for that (nor time to change). I am a GOOD audience member. I laugh, I cue the audience when to applaud (can’t they figure that out?) and prompt others to join me for theatre outings. I agree with those that say they’d rather have a full house of oddly dressed folks than a half-house of well dressed folks.

    I work at a metro community college. I’ll take our students in whatever they want to wear as long as they come, turn off their phones and are attentive. Of course some of what the gals think is ‘dressed up’ is sometimes nearly pornographic. Most of them don’t have ‘dress’ clothes (not even for church).

    Often for costuming, I’ll ask a guy what shirt, pant or suit size they wear. They have no idea that shirts come in something other than S, M, L or XL. They don’t own a button down shirt nor a suit and most don’t even know their shoe size. Inseam? what’s that?

    Don’t think this is a ‘community college mentality’ its the age we are in.

    BUT when a 20-something student(especially an International student) sees their first play ever, and they can’t stop talking about it for days…I rarely think about what they were wearing. I’m just thrilled to have helped to create another theatre patron!

  • Malini says:

    I still dress up to go to the theater. You never know who you are going to see. As a matter of fact, my father reminded the family to dress well and to turn of our cell phones when we saw Godspell.

    Unlike the theater, when I travel I have tremendous anxiety so I don’t want the added pressure of wearing a suit.

    I was at a wedding where the best man wore shorts…and it wasn’t on a beach.

    People just don’t know how to dress for occasions.

  • Phyllis Buchalter says:

    I remember dressing for the theatre and dressing for a flight. I also remember being very uncomfortable in tight theatre seats wearing uncomfortable clothing and a long flight to London in a suit with matching hat and gloves. I am glad to see this go by the way side. My happiest day in my working carrier was being allowed to wear pants, not jeans, first only on Fridays and then all the time.

    What I didn’t like to see go was the price of a ticket then. It was $4.40. That was the top price and everyone dressed for theatre.

    I’m for comfortable seating, courteous audiences (no food and cell phones) and affordable prices. This will bring more people into the theatre.

  • Cathie says:

    I try to look my best when I go to the theater, after all, I’m not sitting in front of the TV. And that’s one thing that some audience members don’t realize!
    All that being said, you bet I’m gonna be rocking my GODSPELL flash mob Tee on Sunday!!!!

  • Kathleen Hochberg says:

    Hey,
    when your blue jeans cost $250. that’s dressed up!

    • Kathleen Hochberg says:

      I don’t like how the “Hey” looks like I was addressing you Ken… it comes across as rude when it was meant to be the first word in the sentence. I didn’t know how to delete and redo or edit.

  • Ellen Orchid says:

    When I was a kid, my parents dressed up for the theater and we did too. It made the occasion even more special. Today I often go to the theater after work and am tired and haven’t time to get home and dress up. I have to admit I admire those who have made the effort to dress up but I also appreciate that we can dress casually, especially in the winter, when it’s snowing or raining. I really like to be able to have my layers of clothes and comfortable pants and shoes. I like to relax into the theater seat and be “carried away” on those nights,, and not worry how I dress. To me, that’s part of the escape. The theater is pricier than ever so I think we should remove any obstacles or restrictions to going like a dress code, while, at the same time, I can appreciate how dressing up enhances the experience. To me, I’m just glad I can get there and see the show. Chacun a son gout, as the French say (and those folks dress damn well! – everywhere – even on the French metro).

  • adam807 says:

    Late to this (I’m SO behind in all my reading!) but I really strongly disagree with Ken and most of the comments here. Which is rare! I do think there should be some standards for going to the theater (don’t wear your gym clothes, for god’s sake), but I think the idea that you have to dress up for it reinforces the sense (along with the ticket prices) that theater is an elitist event. Remember when it was for the masses? Shakespeare’s groundlings? You’ve already asked someone to pay $125 for a ticket and $20 for a drink, you want them to get a special outfit too? I think if we want the theater to survive, we have to drive home that it’s for everyone, not just a certain class of people. Dress reinforces this.

    Furthermore, Broadway theaters, like airplanes, have become less and less comfortable over the years. If I’m going to squeeze into a too-small seat with my knees pressed against the row in front of me (and don’t even get me started on the bathrooms), I’m going to dress comfortably.

    If you want people to dress up, let’s work on making the whole thing a luxury experience again, where we’re treated well and spend our time in comfort…let’s work on that with flying too!

  • adam807 says:

    P.S. Ken, I’d love a way to subscribe to these comments via RSS. I know some blogging platforms have an option for that.

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