To skip right to the answer, yes. You can wear shorts to the opera! There is no dress code for the opera. For those who like to dress up, it can be a great opportunity to do so. But, it is certainly not required.
So maybe the question of my title should be changed, from Can you wear shorts at the opera to should you wear shorts at the opera?
For me the question begins as I step off the train after a late afternoon production of Lucia di Lammermoor in Philadelphia. You could still fry an egg on the black top. It is so hot that opera or not there is no way I’m wearing pants today. A little further down the platform I see my friend and workmate Jeff (in pants) with his wife. They made it! This is their first opera. I don’t really don’t remember what they were wearing, but knowing them I’m sure they looked lovely.
I’m happy to see them because I helped Jeff choose and order the tickets. They clearly enjoyed the performance and I’m glad I got to introduce him to this thing I love so much. We share some small talk on the way back and the topic of attire never comes up. It never occurs to me that they’ll be talking down about me after I’m gone.
History: Jeff is one of my best friends at work. The two of us share lunch with a hilarious roundtable of genuinely likable co-workers, who I’m not sure either of us truly deserve. I cherish Jeff and the company of these guys like brothers and teammates. Jay and Ed for example once climbed on stage for an open comedy night with zero preparation to leave a full bar rolling on the floor laughing. That Caribou story is just wrong. Joe is always there with a friendly ear and Rob is supremely likable in his agreeability and we’re proud to know a musician who sat in with The Who, even though he never plays the French horn for us, claiming that it is an impossible thing to do. “Nobody can play the French Horn.We all have been eating lunch together for years now that outside of work we naturally take the same seating positions.
Monday at lunch I’m expecting maybe a “thanks again”, or “that was awesome,” but instead Jeff mocks me and brings up the fact that I was wearing shorts to yesterdays opera. I’m taken aback at first – then I’m really pissed off.
I finally cool down – about three years later.
I realize then that Jeff is probably not alone in thinking it’s either against the rules or not appropriate to wear shorts to the opera. In fact, I bet most people think you shouldn’t wear shorts to the opera. My gut reaction is that these people are idiots, but it is a question worth exploring:
Should you wear shorts to the opera?
Let’s be clear. The opera house itself has no dress code. You are welcome to wear whatever you like, including shorts. Even my friend Corky when visiting La Scala in Milan wore a Tuxedo-T-Shirt.
Jeff is tall. Me as a short guy in the theater thinks if anything were to be banned for interfering with others enjoyment of theater, it wouldn’t be for what they are wearing but to ban anyone over 6 feet tall. Let the rest of see the stage please! It’s a free country unfortunately. I digress before really getting into it:
Dress codes are gatekeepers that judge someones look as more important than their character, or worse how they dress is their character. If we’re being honest dress codes are a way of excluding ‘others,’ who the dominate class deems undesireable. To raise attire up to a moral judgment of right and wrong – is strategic. History is ripe with examples of authoritarian societies who used attire as an excuse to subjugate and disenfranchise other classes and keep them in their place. Dress codes are the antithesis of freedom. There is no wrong way to protect oneself from the elements. Ties and gowns are worn by both angels and demons, and more often by the later.
I’ll never forget when an artist friend (who I dearly miss) pointed out during her exhibition that a tie is nothing but a symbolic phallus a man wears around his neck with an arrow that points to his dick. Dress codes are power plays.
With these thoughts and memories of her on my mind, I instantly launch into a defense fueled by indignation and a lot of coffee:
“What I’m wearing doesn’t interfere with your enjoyment of the opera in anyway whatsoever. Unless I’m wearing a Lincoln hat in front of you what I wear in no way diminishes you or another persons enjoyment of the opera experience. That’s the kind of old fashioned snobby thinking that makes art and culture feel so inaccessible to people. It weaponizes art in a way that creates a climate of us’s and them’s, propers and inpropers. It looks to belittle someone rather than elevate someone. It is the antithesis of arts goal to communicate and connect with others.
Art expresses what it feels like to be human. It’s a deep heartfelt communication between artist and audience. What’s required is an open heart, not some antiquated model for differentiating societietal class structures.”
You’ll have to imagine fifteen minutes of this peppered with a lot of swear words. I exhaust my passion and our friend Ed who has been listening interjects.
“Let me ask you this. Was there anyone else at the opera wearing shorts?”
The answer, is “no.”
For them who like to dress up, the opera can be a wonderful opportunity to do so. In fact, as the culture in America becomes increasingly ever more casual, it might be one one the last places where you won’t feel out of place by being dressed up.
Operas are also three hours long and it makes a lot of sense to dress comfortable.
Recently I asked Chaltin if she would mind if I wore shorts to the opera and she said I could wear whatever I want. When I asked again if she would prefer me to wear shorts or pants – she said pants.
*I should have laughed off the shorts comment but, I teach art in a pretty puritanical suburb, so dress codes have always been a sore subject for me.
My first year teaching our principal actually asked me to pull down my sweater to see if I was wearing a tie. Did I mention I teach art!? Our superintendent also visited one day and asked me to tuck in my shirt. Insane, It’s not like I’m wearing pajamas and clown shoes or daisy dukes and a tank top or something. I do not comply this time and it gets tense. Fortunately my students arrive like that scene from Indiana Jones when they surround Indie, and it diffuses the situation. My school district is obsessed with dress code. There is a complete double standard with female staff who can wear anything, literally anything they want, and do. The men can also wear a turtle neck and blazer in lieu of a tie to show how dated it all is.
Dress code is a constant conversation in our building. Apparently boys can’t learn if they are wearing a hoodie and girls can’t learn in leggings. Administrative fashion police pull students off to the side if they don’t like what they see. It’s so subjective, it’s so stupid. Either have a real dress code for student or don’t. Llife’s full of contradictions isn’t it. For school I love the idea of a dress code because, like in our larger society, clothes are an indicator of social status and coolness and it leaves poorer students ostracized. Maybe I just don’t like that I was teased for wearing ‘Bobo’s’ when I was in school. But, as an artist I love the idea of free expression… I miss the days before opera when I was lifeguarding and all I had to think about was a pair of trunks and sunscreen with the occasional run-in at the supermarket with the ol, “Hey, I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”