Dressing Down

Chanel Number 5 was the final flourish in my mother’s munitions. A dab behind each ear, a dob in the crease of each arm. There would be a final look in the mirror, a stroke to her hair, a smile for the two little girls studying her every move, and she’d signal her readiness by picking up her evening bag. Her date would be waiting in the kitchen, perhaps buffing his shoes, a Red Label for company.

My sister and I would descend the stairs ahead of my mother like bridesmaids announcing the main attraction. When my father looked up at her and told her how lovely she looked, we’d squirm with pleasure, feeling we’d had some hand in her perfection. Had we not passed her the bobby pins, zipped her back into the long green taffeta dress, fastened her pearls, shellacked her Beehive?

A kiss for each of us, and they’d head out the door, my father first sweeping away the worst of the Golden Retriever hair before helping her into the station wagon. They were headed to La Scala to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. This was Toronto, 1968, and La Scala was the Italian powerhouse restaurant on the southeast corner of Bay and Charles Streets, to which they returned yearly to celebrate a happy marriage.

Always, smoked salmon and shrimp cocktail to start. My dad would have a rare steak, my mum the Dover sole almandine. There would be flaming Baked Alaska and Peach Melba and Sanka taken in the room by the fire. I’d hear about every bite and every sip the morning after The Big Night. My mother reveled in the details every bit as much as my sister and I.

My husband knows this story and has similar recollections from his own family history, which spanned a number of Canadian cities – Montreal, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa. In 1968, in our worlds, a man with a charge card or, perhaps more likely, a simple wad of cash, treated his girl to a meal “out.” It was, to put it plainly, a big deal, and every other diner in the room recognized the production in which they were participating by the simple act of dressing for it. To do otherwise was unthinkable. Like wearing jeans to church or an I’m with Stupid t-shirt to a play.

Last week Ken and I were planning for our own Big Day, a twentieth anniversary, one marker of which was to be our own dinner out at a very elegant, very expensive Ottawa-area restaurant. And out of a perverse curiosity, I phoned around to ask The Question to which I already knew the answer: Do you have a dress code?

I knew the answer, because I eat for a living. In the twenty years I’ve been poking around restaurants with forks and pens, I’ve seen a dramatic change in the way people dress for dinner at our region’s most elegant restaurants.

So I didn’t just ask if there was a dress code; I asked what happened to the dress code?

After a certain amount of awkward verbal blundering, the first respondent finally announced, “We gave up.” It had become too much work to enforce. They had started to cave with a more relaxed policy one summer (when less is required of us) and once September arrived, they just never buttoned down again on the jackets-compulsory business.

Next, I checked Le Baccara’s policy: “Business casual, necktie optional.” 
 I called Signatures: “We suggest resort casual.” Suggest? Resort casual? And if someone shows up in shorts and a T? “Well, we would try to accommodate them in a, er, private manner with something, uh, more suitable.”
I could hear him squirm.

At Wilfrid’s in the Chateau Laurier, its “smart casual. Jeans are allowed, but not “ripped jeans,” and T-shirts are OK but not with loud logos on them.” 
 Ditto for Hy’s. “No short shorts either.”

When the dearly departed Café Henry Burger built a wine bar into its back end, I knew the dress code (where gentlemen were “encouraged to wear a jacket”) would be abandoned. 
 We do not, was the answer to the question of dress code enforced, at Beckta’s Dining and Wine. 
Me: “So anything goes?” 
He: “…Er, yes.”
Twenty years ago there would have been a stash of blazers in the manager’s office of a dozen traditional dining rooms. No-one I spoke with could quite remember the gradual mothballing of those coats.

Next year, they may be handing out Senators caps instead of ties.

Would I expose myself as a dreadful fuddy duddy for feeling ever so somewhat sad about that?

I suspect what’s happened in restaurants is the same thing that has taken place in so much of our modern lives. We have rejected formality. We live in a society where saying Sir and Madam is seen as putting on airs. Standing up when a new guest enters a room is being showy. In our rush to show how democratic and rank free we are we’ve given up on all the symbolism that buttressed the old ways. Offering seats to women, holding chairs and doors, making toasts, removing hats. Having discarded these relics, what was once considered being polite is now the new pretentious.

But maybe there’s a solution in all this democracy. If restaurants no longer wish to have the authority to set dress codes, maybe we should leave it to the diners themselves. When a new guest arrives, let’s have a vote. I for one would welcome it. I’ve shown up in a skirt and pumps, I’ve made my man wear a tie, I’ve gone to some trouble, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone in a Back in Black World Tour T-shirt and a Red Sox cap plunk themselves next to me.
In keeping with another pop tradition of our modern, egalitarian world, that dude is off my island.






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