I was sitting in my living room flipping through the pages of a local publication when I came across a set of images from people who have attended the theatre. These are the moments when a slightly shy photographer politely asks for a photo as bashful patrons awkwardly pose hoping that the Photoshop wizard will transform them into a Kate Beckinsale red carpet lookalike before the image goes to print.
As I gaze at the images one detail takes my interest. Many people, particularly those who have their photo taken, put a lot of thought into what they wear on a night out. However there are clearly those who would prefer to adorn their most comfortable ensemble and leave their formal wear at home. Either way, the scene that is set creates in itself a living tapestry of artwork. With the vastly varying outfits that adorn the pages it is hard to pinpoint a specific style. It is the kind of diversity that would cause Bill Cunningham to quickly run out of flash bulbs.
There once was a time when you would be tossed to the curb if you wore anything less than your finest garments and jewellery to the theatre but in the twenty-first century it has become perfectly acceptable to wear what you feel to be suitable and even more importantly comfortable. In many cases, including that of myself, this may mean simply jeans and a t-shirt.
The general unspoken courtesy is informal (one internet forum described it as “neat casual”) at matinees and semi-formal for evening performances. Appropriate attire may even be performance specific. You wouldn’t be expected to attend the Melbourne Comedy Festival dressed in your finest penguin suit but attendance at the Australian Ballet may demand something a little more special than acid wash jeans and an Aerosmith t-shirt.
When you are spending two hours sitting in relatively close proximity to a number of strangers you must be comfortable. As great as they look I am sure that high heels and a corset are not going to make you feel very comfortable.
Chicago’s Goodman Theatre says “you'll see all sorts of dress—from elegant cocktail attire to business casual to jeans. The rule of thumb is, wear what makes you feel most comfortable.”
The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway vaguely adds that attire should be “appropriate for the occasion.”
As a theatre society we must show that attending a performance does not need to be a special occasion, it should be accepted as part of your everyday life. A discussion amongst New York theatre regulars came to the conclusion that theatregoers “are entitled to not only a good performance, but an attractive audience.”
The audience is as much a part of the attraction as the performance itself. Arranged in the tiered seating as if they were jewellery on display in a shop window, the people who have paid to see a performance might as well be on show themselves.
“Most of the time, no one cares what you wear,” writes The Guardian’s Natasha Tripney, “and I can't see that as a bad thing. Surely it's liberating to go to the theatre in whatever you happen to have on: it's one less barrier between the art and the audience.”
When performing art has become a regular event it attracts many different types of characters. Despite the variances everyone has something in common. Everyone is there for a common purpose and with that comes their quirks, tastes and styles. While individually they may be nothing other than ordinary when they come together they form part of a larger performance art. One that, despite the high quality of performances gracing the stage, has become an event in itself.