Although the “jacket required” policy is less common these days, many restaurants still require modest dress, especially in fine dining circles where the age-old dress code is a symbol of prestige. Some restaurateurs see them as a way to create atmosphere in their restaurants — like Angie Mar’s new Les Trois Cheveaux in New York City — but it’s increasingly unclear whose interests the policies are actually serving. As Americans’ dining habits have become more casual, the dress code has become increasingly out of date. Just as going to the theatre or taking a plane has lost its once glamour, restaurants — even the fanciest ones — have become more populist. Legislative style is out of step with modern cultural norms.
The dress code also has a dirty history of discrimination. That may have been the case with former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms last week. denial of service Arrived at the Capital Grille restaurant wearing leggings. Capital Grille appears to provide a “polite notice” on its website about the policy, stating that “appropriate attire is required for the comfort of all guests and to better deliver on our commitment to a sophisticated atmosphere.” The disclaimer goes on to explain that this applies to : Activewear, sweatpants, tank tops, hats, clothing with offensive language or images, and revealing underwear.
There’s a lot to unravel here, but the one that stands out is the restaurant’s “commitment to a sophisticated ambience.” The statement is so full of potential bias that it is impossible to believe that Mayor Bottoms is the first victim of the capital’s grille fashion police. Besides, who’s going to set the standard for “sophistication” at Capital Grille or any restaurant?
As a waitress working in a fine dining restaurant, I’ve had customers make comments about the appearance of others they thought were underdressed, and it was always embarrassing to accept those comments. Why do these people care about how other guests look? Are more casually dressed neighbors somehow detracting from their dining experience? Sophisticated standards — like not wearing hats indoors — are often faded remnants of a bygone era of Emily Post’s take on dining etiquette. Enforcing the rules at restaurants is often necessary, but it may be time to update the rulebook.
Of course, all of this belies a deeper question: Are restaurants obligated to ensure that everyone who enters is dressed “appropriately”? If so, how do they measure what is appropriate and what is not? Restaurants with dress codes may argue that these policies are designed to protect all guests from wearing obscene or uncomfortable clothing for others. It’s not about fashion, they’ll say, it’s about normalizing etiquette.
But we’ve also reached a point where fashion is no longer the norm, and formal attire is far less common in restaurant settings. Men rarely wear blazers or suits out to dinner unless they’re straight from get off work or for a formal occasion. Women may wear skirts, but that’s because they want to, not because they fear being shunned if they don’t.
While it’s hard to prove that these policies were racist, it likely played a role in the situation of Mayor Bartons and others. Dress codes are often used to discriminate against marginalized black and brown people whose styles may not conform to mainstream white standards. Numerous photos have surfaced on social media showing white women outside the capital’s grille wearing leggings, while men are wearing tracksuits or tracksuits.
Last April, The Ashford, a pub in Jersey City, was accused of discriminatory conduct by a black customer who claimed he was denied service for wearing sweatpants. After being denied entry, he witnessed many similarly dressed white customers being allowed in. A few months later, Atlanta’s Turkey Leg Shack sparked controversy by announcing a dress code banning “overly loose or saggy trousers.” The restaurant’s Instagram post (deleted shortly after the announcement and eventual backlash) stated that Turkish Hut “is a family-friendly restaurant.” Skeptics were quick to point out that the co-owner of Turkey Leg Shack, Lyndell Pierce, was arrested earlier this year for allegedly flogging a man with a pistol at a local bar.
It’s not fair for an owner like Pierce to put their employees in an uncompromising position to oversee a client’s appearance or determine who deserves entry. Asking staff to provide warmth and hospitality while scrutinizing guests’ attire is a difficult requirement. Empowering employees to enforce flawed policies opens the door to flawed outcomes.
The dress code also violates the most basic principle of good service: a warm welcome without prejudice to everyone. I can tell you from my years of experience that customers rarely understand when staff ask them to take off their hats or tell them their attire doesn’t meet restaurant decent standards. Most people responded defensively and felt personally attacked. As a guest, I was asked to take off my hat myself, and now it seems more pretentious than ever.
Fashion is changing, and restaurants should acknowledge that instead of trying to force people to dress like the mythical, idealized versions of the past. Throughout U.S. history, certain races have been denied service in restaurants simply because of their skin color. The restaurant spends so much energy trying to recapture the glamour of the past — while incurring discrimination — and inadvertently captures parts of the past that were less glamorous.
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