Let Inga Tell You: Breaking the (dress) code

LET INGA TELL YOU:

Even in a beach community, restaurants have standards, as in the not-uncommon sign, "No shirt — no shoes — no come in." It goes without saying that they're referring to guys as nothing would probably be better for business than women showing up topless.

Over the course of my life and travels, I've had the opportunity to observe how dress codes are enforced. For example, as hard as this is to believe, I went to an all-woman's college in the late '60s that still had a dress code for dinner: skirts for women, jackets and ties for male guests. Let me just say that those skirts were not infrequently accompanied by a ratty T-shirt and flip-flops. (It was a woman's college; who were we trying to impress?) The only actual requirement was the skirt.

This college, which was founded in 1861, was the first degree-granting college for women in the United States, which greatly appealed to my fourth-generation feminist sensibilities. But it definitely hung on to some anachronistic traditions. Since most colleges in the late '60s had central dining halls and hadn't had a dress code in approximately 80 years (if ever), male guests to our institution were surprised — stunned into disbelief might be more accurate — to discover the non-negotiable (by the college) requirement for jackets and ties in our dormitory dining rooms. A selection of (deliberately?) abandoned cheap sports coats and hideous ties were available should your date show up without them. You have never seen a guy look so miserable as one wearing a lime green jacket four inches above his wrists and a Santa tie.

My senior year, the first 70 men infiltrated the campus, and 84 years of rules fell by the wayside within two months. The jackets and skirt requirements were among the first to go. The guys just flat-out refused to dress for dinner. Ties were worn anywhere but around their necks. Thank you, guys! Their other big contribution was the departure of a campus store full of pink-and-gray attire (the school's colors) which our founder, a century earlier, reverently declared symbolic of "the rosy dawn on the gray matter of a woman's mind." (Seriously. I couldn't make this s—t up.)

I've mentioned before that when Olof and I were looking at honeymoon destinations in 1995, our top requirement was that Olof did not have to wear a jacket for dinner. Among Olof's and my many compatibilities is sartorial slug-dom. We weren't always this way. Olof used to look positively dashing in his Air Force dress uniform. In college, I probably had 50 pairs of shoes. I'm not quite at the pastel polyester pantsuit phase but nothing makes Olof and I happier than to go to dinner in civilian clothes. It's probably just as well that we're financially ineligible for local charity balls.

When we first moved to Sweden in 2005, we were delighted to note that the national dress code seemed to be jeans. But when the president of Olof's company was coming to Stockholm and we were going to take him to a really nice restaurant, I scouted the place ahead of time. Let me tell you, it's really really easy to make mistakes when you first arrive in a new country.

So I approached the gentleman at the restaurant podium, explaining we had a reservation for dinner that night, and inquired if there were a dress code for men. He seemed genuinely confused as to what I was asking. I decided to go for my already-patented method of rephrase-and-clarify: Did men have to wear a jacket and tie to eat in the dining room? He still seemed confused: Why would this be? I said that in some upscale restaurants in the United States they would not serve you if you were not in a jacket and tie.

The man looked more puzzled than ever. "Why would you go to a place that treats you so badly?" he said. Good question.

The opposite of the Swedes, of course, were the British.

My first husband and I took a trip to England in the early '70s and went to dine with another couple at a high-end restaurant. The wife of the other couple was wearing a very elegant black crepe pant suit — a tunic over billowy pants. But the maître d' announced stonily that they didn't permit "trousers" on women in the dining room. In probably the gutsiest sartorial move I've ever seen, she proceeded to remove the pants right in front of him and fold them neatly over her arm. "Better?" she inquired sweetly. Mini-skirts were very much in style at the time but this tunic top couldn't have been a micro-millimeter below the, er, Maginot Line.

After a brief stare-down between the woman and the maître d', he seated us.

Inga's lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at inga47@san.rr.com

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