Theatre Dress Code Etiquette: The Unspoken Laws

Chris Fung takes a look at the unspoken dress code laws for live theatre audience members in this tongue-in-cheek column.

Would you turn up to a day in court in shabby clothing?

Photo by diegofornero
Photo by diegofornero

How about to the Doctor’s office?

Or to work? Or to a dinner party?

If your responses were unsurprisingly no, then how, you disgusting excuse for a human being, can you justify coming to Live Theatre in your flip flops and track pants? In your T-Shirts and Baseball Caps? In your lack of Respect for Common Decency and Civility?!

The answer is: you cannot. And so because of your lack of care, you blight the rest of society, whom YOU force to look upon YOU with an ugliness of loud colours, too much skin and all too frequently, a punge rubbed from whatever dank alleyway you may have been marinating in for the hours between your last social welfare payment, and your next hit of marijuana.

As a young theatre-goer with barely any appreciation of fashion, I have felt the caustic sting of these words in a million small glances and flicks of the eye. Because I am dressed differently, because strangers snigger as I pass, and because I have been told “You look like a hobo who has an unhealthy obsession with feces” by my better-dressed actor friends.

Photo by Thomas Tan
Photo by Thomas Tan

The psychological abuse of my friends aside, officially, not a single theatre or company in Australia enforces any kind of dress code. The closest we come are to guides like that of the Sydney Opera House here or this slightly more interesting guide by the Rocky Horror team here.

The former says, most ominously, that you must wear shoes at all times and that should an event carry a dress code you will be informed when you purchase your tickets. The latter urges customers to not be a dick (to paraphrase) and to welcome all the florid hues available in the dress-up world. But nowhere in either is there a penalty guide breaking down the various shades of grey.

In 2013, a New Zealand man named Andrew Fifita-Lamb caught the imagination of the marathon running world when he completed a 160km event in homemade Jandals. The Jandals that Mr. Fifita-Lamb had hand-crafted bore the sole of a gumboot, and strappings fashioned from sets of stockings. Jandals are, by all definitions, shoes. They go upon one’s feet and protect one from the rigours of ambulating, and yet for a large subset of theatre-goers – they do not come close to what a proper shoe consists of. Let alone to respectable.

But let’s set that aside for the moment.

While this article is not specifically on Etiquette but, Dress Code, I am reminded of Rich Wisken’s 2013 complaint (a good year for strange news) in which he joyfully describes the uncomfortable position he was put in because of  his fellow passenger. In this viral blog post, Mr. Wisken details a Jetstar flight in which he was sat next to a corpulent and monstrously foul smelling neighbour, and lambasts Jetstar for their lack of reaction. It is his opinion that Jetstar should have done more to ensure his comfort, and while he never comes out to explicitly say so, bubbling underneath his complaint is a roiling, seething anger at obese people in general.

Image by Miguel Ángel Avila Lombana
Image by Miguel Ángel Avila Lombana

I would like to assume that, if Mr. Wisken’s account is not fictional and these events did take place approximately as he describes them, that his neighbour did not intend to inconvenience young Dick. Very few people intend to inconvenience others. Perhaps our large friend neither had the means nor the understanding that made buying a second seat possible.

And yet, is not Mr. Wisken fully justified in wanting the same positive experience as any other customer who paid a certain amount for his flight? Whose fault is it? Does Dick not have tangible, material reasons why his experience was not excellent?

If we take this as an analogue of dress code, the issue then becomes “are there any tangible, material reasons that demonstrates that bad dress etiquette can adversely affect others?”

Imagine, a young theatre-goer wears some sequined monstrosity crafted from bold reflective material. In the fashion of a disco ball, every little movement shoots laser beams of light into a darkened sea of sombre, sensible clothing. At some point during the performance, a dancer becomes so distracted by this outfit that he falls out of a pirouette while atop another dancer’s head, injuring himself grievously.

Who is at fault?

Short of fashion statements so bold that they are dangerous, are there any tangible, material reasons for a dress code? What does your choice of dress say about you when you go to the theatre? Are certain types of theatre then, only for those who can pay for both the price of admission, as well as the associated costs of adhering to a dress code?

And where does this sit in the milieu of other perennial annoyances such as tall people, crinkly chips, loud talkers and fat neighbours? Should we adopt new hard-line rules to ensure a modicum of comfort, or should we live and let live?

We at would love to hear what you think. Write in below or using the hashtag #GettingBugsBunny to join in the discussion.

Chris Fung

Hailing from the wind-blasted steppes of Mongolia, Chris Fung is a highly accomplished mathematician, award-winning potato grower, and habitual liar. Two specialities which have lent themselves perfectly to his current career in Musical Theatre. Chris met former AussieTheatre Editor Erin James when they were both cast members of the Australian national tour of 'The King and I', wherein Chris was fortunate enough to understudy and play the title role to 25 audiences at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. 

The King that is, not Mrs. Anna. 

Chris studied at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music (B. Musical Theatre), at Sydney University (B.A. in Performance Studies and Education) and at the School of Hard Knocks (B. ing a very bad man that nobody wanna mess with)

Chris Fung

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *