Dressing for dinner: An eye on cruise line dress codes

The Discerning Travelers strike a pose on board a Celebrity cruise ship on a designated formal night.

Some people like a kind of laid-back beach holiday that finds them schlepping around in a T-shirt and shorts with a cold brew always at hand.  Others have to sky-dive or parasail or bungee jump every day.  We are travelers of a different stripe.  We like to drink great wine, walk for miles and miles exploring new and now-familiar cities, have new experiences, sample a new cocktail or two – and dress for dinner.

There’s something just a bit sad about how people “dine out” these days.  Just recently, we read a blog where the writer suggested that dinner is really only about the food.  Well, we respectfully disagree.  Dinner is about dining, and dining refers to a whole lot more than eating.  You can eat anywhere, including your couch.  Discerning travelers are also discerning diners.  We are interested in the whole experience.  Where we eat and the surroundings are as important as the food, and part of those surroundings focus on what you wear when you eat.  Cruises are a prime example of what, where and how one can eat.

The very first time we cruised, we were bemused by the vast number of people who chose to remain on deck in their bathing suits all day and most of the evening, leaving their deck chairs only long enough to load up their plates at the nearby buffet, returning to sit on the edge of the chair, face in their plates, chowing down through the pile of food.  (Presumably they then leave to use the facilities – but we are only guessing here).  Food for us is much more than eating, and dressing for dinner is one of the pleasures of both land and sea-based vacations.

This past weekend, we took some time to make a few decisions about what to pack for the upcoming vacation that will put us on land in Puerto Rico for a few days and then at sea  through the Caribbean, up to Bermuda and then farther up to New York.  Packing for a cruise has its special considerations as we peruse the various ‘dress codes’ that cruise lines use.

Cruise lines seem often to have a language of their own.  Every cruise line has in its FAQ’s a question that goes something like this:  What is the dress code on board?  The answer depends on the line, its brand and its target market.  Let’s look at a few.

Formal night on the Regent Seven Seas Navigator.

Some cruise lines have begun to distance themselves from the more formal evenings, which is a shame in a way, but we do recognize that there are people who don’t find it fun to get dressed up.  If, however, there is a dress code in the dining room, you’d do well to follow it, or risk the stink-eye from fellow cruisers, or worse, ejection from dinner to a more casual corner of the ship.  Some cruise lines actually refuse you entry to the dining room if you are not properly attired (God love Cunard) while others seem to turn a blind eye (although, rest assured, other passengers don’t and you’re being disrespectful of their experience).  So, if you don’t like to get dressed up, pick a different line!

Regent Seven Seas cruises that has played host to us on two vacations over the past three years is a six-star line that has gone to what they call “elegant casual” for every evening with “formal optional” nights on longer cruises.  On this kind of a cruise line, people do follow the dress code, and many cruisers who prefer the more laid-back approach of say NCL, might find the dress formal even on elegant casual nights.  Their dress code says, “Attire ranges from Casual to Formal Optional. Casual wear is appropriate for daytime onboard or ashore, and consists of resort-style outfits. Casual wear, including shorts and jeans, is not appropriate after 6:00 pm, with the exception of the final evening of the cruise.”[1]  The cruisers on Regent do take appropriateness seriously.

Patty and son, Ian, descend the central staircase on Cunard's Queen Mary 2.

Silversea, a line we have traveled on only once last winter, another six-star line, has this dress code: “Evening attire falls into three categories: casual, informal and formal. On casual evenings, open-neck shirts, slacks and sports outfits are appropriate. On informal evenings, women usually wear dresses or trouser suits; gentlemen wear jackets (tie optional). Appropriate formal evening wear for women is an evening gown or cocktail dress; men wear tuxedos, dinner jackets or dark suits. On formal nights, guests dining in La Terrazza may opt to wear casually elegant attire (dresses or trouser suits for women; jacket, tie optional for men).”[2]  Again, they take this seriously.

On Cunard last summer, formal meant formal.  Full-length formal gowns and tuxedos far outnumbered the cocktail dresses and dark suits on the Queen Mary 2, and anyone skulking around in shorts quickly departed (and were not welcome in the dining room in any case).

Next week we’ll be aboard the Celebrity Summit, our third trip on this line.  Our documents indicate that there are two formal nights on this eight night cruise and the rest are “smart casual & above” a category of dress that often baffles and leaves it open to serious interpretation.  In general, however, this means no T-shirts, jeans, shorts or flip-flops.  It means a summer dress or pants and fabulous top for women, and open-collared shirt with slacks and cool shoes for men.  A really cool, above-smart-casual man will wear a jacket as well.

Formal nights for us mean evening gown and tux.  Art always frowns when he has to pack his tux (he frowns only at the packing of it, not the wearing ), but this time he’s in luck. Celebrity has a formal-wear rental program and his tux with all the accoutrements (and he even ordered formal shoes) will be hanging in our suite when we open the closet door on Saturday afternoon.  And it will fit perfectly: we know this from past experience.  All it requires is for you to measure carefully and input the correct measurements when you pre-order online.  Patty, on the other hand, will schlep formal gowns (or in this case one formal gown with two different optional jackets for ease of packing).  A tip for formal gowns for cruises: when you’re shopping for one, always gauge its heft before you try it on.  If it’s heavy, don’t even take it into the dressing room.  Then if it passes the weight test, take a bunch in your hand and ball it up.  When you let it go, if it still has creases, leave it on the rack.  Remember, you’re not permitted an iron in your stateroom on a cruise ship.  The best you’ll be able to do is go to a communal laundry room to wait in line for an iron.  If it doesn’t pack well, don’t buy it.  Then find several different kinds of wraps – better yet jackets these days.  Wraps are cumbersome and usually look overly stuffy.

There's nothing better than the sight of a man in a tuxedo - unless it's two men in well-fitting tuxedos. Art & Ian onboard the Queen Mary 2.

The experience of dining in a wonderfully appointed dining room surrounded by people who have taken the time to look their very best for the evening is a vacation experience that everyone should have once in a while.

There's a little bit of "Gloria" in all of us!
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