This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a look at how passengers are expected to dress for dinner while on a cruise.
Dress to Impress?
One aspect of cruising that often worries first-timers is the dress-code. As one of my non-cruising friends concisely put it: "dressing up for work is bad enough, but I do not want to have to dress up in a 'penguin suit' while on vacation". So let's explore this issue a little deeper.
Many cruise lines, including the big two, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, have a dress code which in particular applies to evening meals in the main dining room. The expected style of dress for the evening (casual, formal, etc.) is typically listed in the daily program and also outside the main dining room. While the specific style of dress varies depending on the day of the cruise, and whether the ship is in port or at sea, on most cruise ships shorts, jeans, T-Shirts and hats are not permitted in the main dining room during dinner.
If we look at Royal Caribbean as an example; during a seven night cruise four evenings are normally designated 'Casual', one is designated 'Smart-casual' and two are designated 'Formal'. While the definition of each style may vary by cruise line, on Royal Caribbean Casual is defined as: Sport shirts and slacks for men, sundresses or pants for women, Smart Casual is defined as: Jackets and ties for men, dresses or pantsuits for women, and Formal is defined as: Suits and ties or tuxedos for men, cocktail dresses for women.
On my last Royal Caribbean cruise in American waters, I notice that at least half the passengers voted with their feet on the two formal nights and gave the main dining room a pass. They opted for the Windjammer buffet which has a casual dress code at all times. Those that did partake in the formal experience were more likely to be dressed in a dark suit and tie or a modest sundress/pants suit rather than a full blown Tuxedo or ball gown. Even then, directly after the meal, many passengers changed back into casual attire. I would also estimate only a few hundred passengers actually attended the Captains formal cocktail party (the chance to shake the Masters hand) out of over three thousand passengers onboard.
Alternatively, if you choose to cruise with Cunard, 'formality' is taken much more seriously. On evening designated as 'Formal' you will find many Tuxedo's, complete with black bow ties and cummerbunds, and full length ball gowns, complete with lots of 'bling'. Very few passengers abandon the formal meals for the buffet; in fact most seemed to relish the opportunity to dress up. Judging by the long line, it would appear that nearly every passenger attended the Captain's formal cocktail party which was held twice to accommodate the two diner sittings.
By the way, have you ever wondered how the term tuxedo originated? According to various Internet sources it originates in 1860 when Henry Poole & Co., the founders of Savile Row, made a short evening or smoking jacket for the United Kingdom's Prince of Wales to wear at informal dinner parties. Mr. James Potter of New York visited the Prince of Wales (by then, Edward VII) in 1886 for a formal occasion at Sandringham. So impressed was he by the garment, he commissioned Henry Poole to tailor his own. He returned to his New York home and showed off his suit at his club, the Tuxedo Park Club. Soon, members were copying the suit and it was adopted as their informal uniform for dinners. (The name Tuxedo Park probably has Native American origins). The term 'Diner Jacket' was introduced two years later.
In my experience, the mass-market lines do not enforce their 'dress-codes' particularly strictly. However, the stories about passengers simply turning around there baseball caps for formal nights, are hopefully untrue. However, I doubt if you would be ejected for turning up on a 'casual' or 'smart-casual' evening wearing sneakers, jeans and a T-Shirt. I'm not even sure that you would be turned away on some ships 'formal' evenings? In fact Norwegian Cruise Line (the number three cruise line) has just announced that they will permit jeans on formal nights.
This has caused much heated debate within our Cruise Talk forum between the more 'traditionalists' and the 'progressives', for want of better terms. Here is just a small selection of the comments recently made in repsonse to NCL's change in policy:
"And I for one am glad to see cruise lines finally evolve".
"I feel a certain amount of dismay at the further erosion of the tradition of fine dining on cruise ships".
"I want to wear what I please on MY vacation. Suits in my opinion are for interviews and funerals".
"It's funny to me how jeans are considered informal, however in many cases they cost much more than slacks or pants!"
So where do I stand on the dress code issue?
Although I may not look as good as James Bond when I wear my Tux, it's not just about aesthetics. I personally prefer the ambience created by formal dress, which does not include 'jeans' in my book. For me formal dress enhances the fine-dining experience, However I fully appreciate that many people do not agree. Their concerns about the practical issues of packing formal cloths, such airline weight restrictions, trying not to crumple them up in transit and limited wardrobe space on some ships, are all valid.
Society is becoming more casual, which includes dressing for work, and NCL and the other mass market lines are simply reflecting this. The vast majority of people probably don't own a Tux or cocktail dress; some may not own suits or dresses at all. And let's be honest, I think we are all getting lazier. It takes more effort to prepare formal cloths and 'dress up' than it does to pull on jeans and a T-shirt.
In order to attract the masses, these lines must provide the experience that the majority of their passengers want. In addition, I don't think 'formality' is particularly compatible with the new 'flexible' types of dining increasingly being offered onboard many newer cruise ships. In fact lines such as 'Ocean Village' have no dress codes at all.
So in conclusion, the cruise lines dress code is nothing to be scared of. Many mass-market ships do still offer a formal experience on a couple of evenings, but in reality it is not a very formal one. There are always casual dining alternatives available onboard all ships and if you look a complete disaster, there's always room service. Fortunately, if you do want to be more formal, there are still cruise lines that maintain the tradition.
I'm please to say that there is something for everybody.