Please, no singlets or beer bellies

The strict dress codes of Britain's hotel restaurants tell us more about the petty snobbery of Middle England than a genuine concern for style. By Louise Levene
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Do you dress for dinner? If not, you stand a 50 per cent chance of being refused dining privileges at any of the three-star hotels in the British Isles. A recent study by the charmingly named British Hospitality Association found that dress codes were definitely on the way back, but the trend was most apparent in the mid-priced three- and four-star gaffs. The few five-star hotels that bothered filling in the questionnaire seemed equally relaxed about what their customers were wearing and didn't necessarily insist on kitting them out with some godforgotten polyester blazer. They, no doubt, find that an average whack of pounds 40 per head keeps out the riff- raff without insulting any blue-jeaned millionaires.

Further down the scale it gets more tricky: four-star hotels in the BHA's survey were a tad keener on jacket and tie (although one doubts the inveterate cravat-wearer need lose much sleep over this one). By the time you're down to three stars, however, the rising tide of vulgarity is lapping at your ankles and something has to be done if you don't want your Oak Room turned into a shellsuit convention.

Hotels, keen to do business with even the scruffiest passing trade, have supplied nasty nylon ties for anyone remiss enough to turn up without one. The latest survey suggests that they are even, on occasion, refusing entry to people with tattoos or "unconventional haircuts" (whatever that may mean). Will they now be supplying panstick and wigs so that even the lower forms of life can still sample the delights of the Carvery?

Dress codes are a minefield: nightclubs say no to trainers and jeans but they also get pretty sniffy with fat people, however beautifully dressed. The Carlton Club in St James's allows female guests to wear trousers but only if accompanied by a matching jacket. Women in drag are OK, basically.

The trouble with all of these petty regulations is that a dress code is a very crude mechanism for aesthetic control. The three-star hotelier is basically extending a welcome to a Brylcreemed reptile in a nylon shirt and grey shoes while turning away the less obviously smart punter in the Hermes polo shirt. Not that the latter would be seen dead in such a place. Casually dressed rich people tend to prefer restaurants that don't usually bother with dress codes.

The single biggest means of obtaining the desired clientele is probably the framed menu outside. If you're willing to pay pounds 60 a head, you can generally wear what the hell you like. The other great restaurateur's weapon is of course the head waiter: unsuitable diners may be let in but they won't want to come back - a condescending manner and a minuscule table by the gents should take care of that.

Mind you, it's all very well to talk airily of the smart-but-casually rich and scoff at the simplistic rules and regulations of the small hotel, but you do have to draw the line somewhere. Unless you specify to the contrary, there is every danger that patrons will enter the dining room bare-chested, barefoot, with "Hate" tattooed across their foreheads (it offends the other diners, you know).

Gone are the days when people could simply be embarrassed into dressing the part. It is some time now since Harrods introduced a dress code in a last-ditch attempt to protect the bona fide customer from the sartorial lapses of those who were there purely to take photographs. Harrods' position is usually dismissed as snobbery yet there is hardly a nightclub in the land that will admit a man wearing plimsolls, pubs routinely deny admission to the working man thanks to their ban on soiled clothing and the fact that what was once the public bar is now a Farmhouse Grill. Even McDonald's draws the line at punters with no shirt on.

Before we condemn the small-minded hoteliers of Britain's resorts we should remember that there are few depths to which humanity will not sink without a little friendly guidance. Riviera cafe owners long ago found it necessary to impose a no swimwear rule when confronted by the mahogany bosoms of middle-aged German ladies over the moules frites. The RAC clubhouse in Pall Mall, spiritual home of Denis Thatcher, once felt compelled to erect a notice outside the swimming pool requesting lady members "to kindly refrain from wearing their curlers in the bar". Honest to God.

Basically, any establishment, whether it's Harrods or the Kwality Komfort Inn, introduces a dress code to safeguard its existing clientele. If you are a south coast hotelier doing a brisk trade in set-lunches-with-cheeseboard for elderly ladies, you would be a fool to become the backpacker's friend. You need to be very sure of your trade before you take such a risk. The 50 per cent of three-star hotels that don't mess about with a dress code are generally those that cater specifically for business people: unlike resort hoteliers, they are less likely to be confronted by dinner guests in an Arsenal strip still sweaty from a hard day's beach volleyball. The tablecloths are changed thrice daily, a change of clothes doesn't seem too much to ask but does it have to be a tie?

Commentators often get hot under the collar about jacket-and-tie rules. The assumption is that the man in the street objects wholeheartedly to wearing a tie at all, that it will make him uncomfortable and that forcing him to put one on will wreck his evening out. In fact, men quite like dressing up (check out the cummerbund counter in your local department store). Anyway, who cares about him? Forcing a man into collar and tie gives the woman on his arm carte blanche to don the strapless sequins and matching clutch bag.

This isn't a purely British phenomenon, of course. Theatregoers in Sydney regularly sport black tie, and the Paris Opera, frighteningly chic at the best of times, reserves one performance of each opera and ballet as an evening dress occasion. Not (as in London) because Princess Michael of Kent is putting in an appearance, but simply because some audiences relish an opportunity to put on the Ritz.

The funny part about the whole three-star saga is the picture it paints of middle-market dining: an uncomfortably hushed room part-filled with local gentility looking sideways at each diner who enters for fear that the tone of the damasked sanctum will in some unquantifiable way be lowered by the arrival of a man in an open-necked shirt. The anxious head waiter sees them tut resentfully into their brown Windsor and another dress code is born. They're welcome to it. Remember, next time you get the inexplicable urge to sample the soup of the day at a three-star hotel near you, only to be turned away by a smug little jobsworth in a maroon jacket, you've been thrown out of better places than this.