Formal nights on cruise ships... observations from the deck

If you want to start a heated and vigorous debate in a cruising chat room or a ship's lounge, just bring up the issue of formal dress.  A recent article in the Washington Post noted how a query about relaxed dress codes on Facebook "...struck a nerve and sparked more than a few squabbles, differences of opinion and downright insults." I reposted the article on a Facebook group for Celebrity Captain's Club members (frequent travelers), and received similar reactions.

So, I thought I would clarify the issue, so we could all be on the same page.


All of my cruises have been on Celebrity and Royal Caribbean (RC).  In January, I was on both the Celebrity Edge and the RC Allure of the Seas. The Edge is considered a "high end" ship (you can interpret this in many ways... more Captain's Club (like RC's Diamond) members, more expensive, many experienced cruisers, and an older/wealthier crowd).  The Allure clearly is a family-oriented ship, with a miniature golf course, zip lines and climbing walls, a wave machine, and pizza parlors (yet strangely, more smoking areas).

The Allure, as with all the RC ships, has some nights designated "formal nights," defined as follows:

Formal: Make it a night out in your best black-tie look – suits and ties, tuxedos, cocktail dresses or evening gowns. There can be 1-3 formal nights during a sailing and is at the ship’s discretion.

Some people take advantage of the opportunity on cruise ships to dress to the nines.  It adds to the glamorous ambiance of a ship. 

 The Edge (and other Celebrity ships) have redefined "formal" as "evening chic."

Formal Night gets a modern luxury reboot. Say goodbye to Formal Night, and hello to Evening Chic. It’s your time to shine—your way. Get glamorous. Get chic. Be sophisticated. Now, on up to two nights on every cruise, Evening Chic activities have been introduced, and Evening Chic attire has replaced Formal attire. While dressier than Smart Casual, Evening Chic is intended to be less dressy than Formal attire. Women should feel comfortable wearing a cocktail dress, or skirt, pants or designer jeans with an elegant top. Men should feel comfortable wearing pants or designer jeans with a dress shirt, button-down shirt or sweater, and an optional sport coat or blazer. Evening Chic means that you can get glamorous and be sophisticated in your own way. If you would like to still wear a tuxedo or formal gown on Evening Chic nights, you absolutely should.

Note that Celebrity itself has remade formal into evening chic. So what's the hubbub? I don't tend to hear from cruisers wearing evening chic and complaining about people wearing evening gowns and tuxedos. I put myself in this category.  I do hear complaints from people wearing formal clothes about the less-than-formal evening chic.  Once I was wearing an open-necked shirt and a sport coat on a Celebrity cruise.  A fellow passenger I had met during the cruise, and wearing a tux, sidled up to me and commented about another guest sitting nearby, with a short-sleeved dress shirt. He said, "Some people just don't understand what formal dining is all about," nodding toward the other man. I turned so he could see that I wasn't wearing a tie, and commented, innocently, "but that's a nice shirt."  He gawked and walked off.  So it goes... blame evening chic, I say!

I also hear complaints about diners who treat a visit to the main dining room (MDR) like a visit to Burger King.  And I'm sympathetic to the complaints here.  I did see, at adjoining tables, a couple dressed in formal clothes, next to a table that had me thinking of Duck Dynasty... t-shirts, ball caps, shorts, and untied tennis shoes.  So, what's the dealio? Should people be allowed to wear whatever, whenever?  Should dress codes be rigorously enforced?  Should public shaming of the sloppily underdressed be encouraged?  My answer is... puppies.

I mean to say, the answer isn't "puppies," but rather to chill about the issue.  Look at photos of puppies, and kittens, and whales, and your grandkids.  Take a deep breath. This is not a life or death issue.  Your wardrobe will not affect the remote probability that you will contract a norovirus on the cruise.  Your food won't taste any different.  And you are not a better person just because of your outfit.

Here's what I do know. Clothes don't make the man (or woman). And respect for traditions is not an out-dated concept.  

Consider the following issues:

•  Fine clothes tell you nothing about a person. Just watch that man with the tuxedo coming out of the toilet and leaving without washing his hands.  Listen to the woman draped in jewelry and silk sharply criticize her server for a delay in getting sauce for her shrimp cocktail. They might be that couple who save their lounge chairs by the pool all day long, or pick all the strawberries off a cake at the lunch buffet.  Chances are, instead of relishing the moment and the company at their table, conversation turns to bragging about their exploits or criticizing other people.  I'd rather they wash their hands.

•  For men and women, fine clothes can hide numerous physical attributes, like big bellies.  I have to laugh at this... I'd rather see people dressed in comfortable (but still classy) dress for dinner than what my eyes have to put up with around the pools.  It really kills me to hear people complain about the dress of others, then parade around the deck in form-fitting spandex. I don't begrudge various body shapes.  But if you complain about less-than-formal dress at dinner, then I can complain about way-too-revealing dress at the Mast Bar.

•  Illusory superiority abounds on cruise ships. Complainers know they are smarter, richer, more fit, and better looking than everyone else... no averages here! For NPR listeners, this is The Lake Wobegon effect.  Cruisers are above average... even with other cruisers.  They overstate their own qualities. This includes how good they look and how sophisticated they think they are.  Again, clothes don't make the person... behavior does.  

•  There is a trend on cruise ships to have some restaurants and other amenities (usually spa-related) available for select guests purchasing a suite or "Aqua-class" package.  Perfect.  If you want to avoid the hoi palloi, avoid the MDR (main dining room). And if you have a hard time being around people different from you, consider room service.

We've solved the issue by reserving EVERY seat in the main dining room, so we can have the place to ourselves.  Ha. This is just early seating in the MDR.

•  "Formal dress" is ephemeral. Look at how athleisure wear has grown from simple sweatpants to a billion dollar fashion industry.  

Active people want comfortable clothes at home, in the gym, at work, and when they are out on the town. The styles developed a hundred years ago don't provide this range of functions.  Athleisure is certainly moving into the "smart casual" realm, and you'll see this evolution in your town and on cruise ships.

•  It is the goal of the clothing industry to get you to buy... more clothes. Every year there are new fashions.  And people being people, you want an occasion to wear them.  I get it. You are not going to wear that tux to Applebees, right?  That formal gown with the matching pearl necklace and earrings will seem a bit much at Chick-fil-A.  Hey, a cruise is a great opportunity to wear them.

•  I wonder if some of the criticism deals with the hassle of bringing formal clothes on board.  You have to have the room in your luggage to pack those dress shoes and formal clothes.  Perhaps they get to the ship wrinkled, so you have to shell out for pressing. Maybe you needed to wrestle with two suitcases instead of one (paying extra at the airport), or were not able to bring all that you wanted because you needed that extra space.  For my travels, I tend to bring a mask and fins for snorkeling, an insulated rash guard, a bike helmet (that's a space suck for sure), basic bike tools and a pump, and bike shorts, as well as shoes just for running.  The light things (like my bike helmet and the snorkeling equipment) go into a small carry-on, and the rest into my one check-on suitcase. I always have some hard decisions to make about what to bring.  For example, I spent a month in Africa last year and was allowed to bring a single medium duffle bag and a day pack. I've spent the past three months on the road, having to deal with climate extremes that required I bring a raincoat, a light down coat and vest, a variety of footwear, and gym clothes.

The middle of a 20 mile (32 km) bike ride in Honolulu.

Caroline and Beth taking a break in the middle of a 32 mile (50 km) bike ride in Cozumel.

I know, this is my decision.  I choose to be prepared for adventures.  And one of the trade-offs is that I can't bring everything.  So when people judge me for not wearing formal clothing (ironically, on evening chic night), I may be just relaxing after a serious biking, hiking, diving, or running adventure.

•  Severe underdressing is not cool. Who goes on a cruise only bringing shorts and tee shirts? I walked into the Tuscan Lounge (Celebrity) after being outside and was asked to remove my hat.  Of course!  I know the policies and guidelines.   But I also understand the pressure on staff to make everyone happy and get a 5-star rating.  They see the underdressed guests, and grin and bear it.  I suspect guest complaints, whether valid or not, are reasons for reduced compensation or contract non-renewal.  One suggestion here is that all passengers see a short but entertaining video on clothing etiquette, similar to the one they often see about washing their hands. There are many YouTube videos dealing with dressing for cruises, but I suggest the one produced by RC, "What to wear on a cruise." 

Interestingly, I don't think I've ever seen a person wearing shorts in the main dining room on a Celebrity ship. But it was a common occurrence on the Allure.  Well, "common" might be too strong here.  On the Allure, with a full MDR on a formal night, I estimated about 20% of the guests were dressed in "your best black-tie look – suits and ties, tuxedos, cocktail dresses or evening gowns."  Most diners were dressed in "smart casual."  Maybe one in 50 were wearing shorts and a tee shirt, and you really don't notice their dress when they are sitting down.  But still... respect tradition!

And remember... puppies!


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