By Ahtiya Liles
If you’ve been keeping up, I love theatre. And I also love comfortable clothes. So, as it would happen, I love going to the theatre in comfortable clothes.
For some theatre-goers, this poses a problem. The theatre is supposed to be high class and sophisticated, right? Only those with good taste go the theatre, right? And people who are high class, sophisticated, and have good taste wear “good” and “appropriate” clothing to enjoy the theatre…right?
During my first semester, the Theatre and Performance department scored a bunch of tickets to If/Then starring Idina Menzel and were able to give these tickets to people within the major who were interested. I, of course, put my name down. Who a) doesn’t want to see Idina Menzel on Broadway and b) would pass up FREE BROADWAY TICKETS? Not this girl!
The day arrived for If/Then, and I snuggled into my jeans (this is back when I was still wearing and liking jeans), some unimportant, run of the mill top, and my beat up Uggs (may they rest in peace). One of my roommates stopped me and asked, “You’re going to wear jeans and Uggs to go see Idina Menzel?” To which I replied: “Yes. I am. I mean, Idina’s not going to know if I’m wearing jeans or not, and even if she did, I doubt she’ll be offended.” Even my mother, when we went to see The Sister Act and Memphis a year and a half prior to this, had commented on my lack of semi-dressy attired.
I vehemently dislike the notion that there is a specific dress-code when you see a Broadway show or any piece of theatre. Theatre is supposed to be enjoyable to some degree, and that includes being comfortable while you are attending (even though, I’ll be the first to argue that if a piece of theatre makes you uncomfortable, really try to discover why and embrace it). This ideal of dressing a certain way is deeply rooted in the fact that theatre was historically for those of the upper-class and upper-middle class, and this usually meant white people, simply because of how economics are divided in this country. Please note that I’m not saying that all white people are part of the upper class or even the upper-middle class. I implore you, however, to think about how the wealth disparity can contribute to our society’s attitude towards theatre attire.
The idea that people who go to the theatre should dress a certain way directly feeds into the environment of elitism that is associated with “high-brow” art forms, such as theatre, ballet, and opera. I don’t know much about ballet and opera, so I’ll stick to what I do know. Theatre was historically for those of a higher wealth bracket. If you’ve been paying attention in any United States history class, you know that minorities in this country usually did not make it into the upper bracket. This came from a lack of education, opportunities, and equality due to segregation and institutionalized racism. Now, let’s jump to the present day. Our country has made some (and I use the term ‘some’ lightly) progress when it comes to attempting to “spread the wealth” in terms of money, opportunities, equality, and education. I also use the term ‘attempting’ because we’re failing. When you look at the disparity of wealth between white people and other minorities, white people just make more money. This has been a fact for as long as this country has been around. According to a CNN report from 2015, the typical white family household accumulated more than $134,200 in wealth in 2013. Black families accumulated a little bit more than $11,000, and latino families made $13,700. In 2013, white people on average made about 12.2 times the wealth of blacks and 9.8 times the wealth of latinos. Compared to movie tickets, tickets for Broadway and theatre is pretty expensive. So, when you have families who are making 9.8 and 12.2 times less than the majority of the country, the opportunity to spend money on something as expensive as theatre and Broadway does not present itself. And I know that these are statistics from fairly recent times, so you might not be fully comprehending my claim that the “dress-code” for theatre is rooted in this elitism (that, in turn, originated in our country’s racist history), but just bear with me. These statistics I just mentioned, while they are from 2015, haven’t budged in the last 50 years (see article here). And I can only image what it was like before that.
Because of this wealth gap that has been permeating our society, theatre, for a very long time, wasn’t accessible for everyone. It’s still not completely accessible, simply for the reason of economics. Should prices for theatre tickets come down? As a consumer, I might be inclined to say ‘yes,’ but as a theatre-maker, I’m inclined to say ‘absolutely not.’ The people who make the art we love to enjoy should get paid. What should change is the wealth gap and the fact that a lot of people in this country are living below the poverty line or very close to it. This lack of accessibilty feeds into the societal perception that theatre is like a private club almost. Ticket prices and exposure augment this. The wealth disparity between races also adds to this, as Broadway audiences are very, very white. This is evident if you just sit in a Broadway audience, and it’s even more evident when you’re a person of color because we tend to notice when there’s a lack of color in a room. The Broadway League charted the demographics of Broadway audiences between 2014-2015, and almost 80% of tickets were purchased by white people.
While our society is changing and theatre is becoming more diverse (slowly but surely…), the lingering effects of these facts are still present. Let’s review:
- There has always been a wide wealth gap between white people and minorities as a result of instutionalized racism.
- This has led to an upper class and upper-middle class that is predominantly white.
- Theatre has traditionally been a high-brow art form that catered to these white upper- and upper-middle classes.
- Because of it’s “high-brow-ness,” theatre audiences dressed up to go to theatre.
- Because theatre audiences were of an upperclass, they could afford to dress up to attend the theatre.
So, when you tell someone that they have to dress up to go see a show or you give them a dirty or weird look or you condescend their outfit choice, you are feeding into and perpetuating an elitist culture that has roots in racism and economic prejudice. Also, mind your damn business. Who cares if someone is coming to see a show in sweatpants and a snapback? If their outfit is really bothering you, then maybe you need to re-evaluate your engorged sense of superiority just because you’re wearing a seemingly “better” outfit than them. Last time I checked, we go to the theatre to enjoy shows, not judge other people’s clothing. If you wanted to do that, I heard New York Fashion Week has a pretty impressive line-up.
In conclusion: wear what you want to wear to the theatre and let other people wear what they want to wear. As a theatre-maker, trust me, we’re not concerned with what our audience is wearing. We’re just basking in the fact that there is indeed an audience.