The imposition of dress codes has been a resurgent and irksome issue in Guyana in recent years, and on occasions there have been public complaints about the manner in which persons are denied entry to public buildings. While there have been controversies when persons visit public offices generally, the matter has come into sharp focus during performances at the National Cultural Centre, moving from the disputes between patrons and ushers out front to the laughter from satirical treatment of the subject on stage.
In all cases, what has irked persons and provoked debates is not the presence of a dress code per se, but some of the forms of clothing found objectionable and the way it has been applied. Criticism has been aimed at both the officials in authority who have set down details of what items are not allowed and the guards posted at gates and doors who refuse entry based on some ridiculous detail or their own judgment of what is ‘decent.’
Dress codes have two kinds of advantages, one based on the fact that these standards are often really a class issue. Some establishments set standards aimed at a certain elite or maintaining an appearance to give the impression of high quality. They desire perceptions of an up-market image. Some do it to attract one class and keep out another. But the advantages of having standards are understandable. In places of entertainment, for example, from restaurants to night clubs, having no dress code can be disadvantageous. People will either frequent or avoid the establishment based on what they see the clientele wearing, but it is more than just appearance. Those places with no standard where any form of shabbiness or deshabille is tolerated, inevitably become run down. This deterioration will in-clude the attraction of an assortment of types, unfavourable behaviour patterns and a breakdown in order. They develop unsavoury reputations, and alienate many patrons.
Where the theatre is concerned, tradition, including dress, has been a very strong factor. In the Caribbean there are strong forms of indigenous theatre, but our concern here is with the Western theatre tradition. The Caribbean received the Western theatre from colonial times with all the formalities that have attended it. Some of the printed programmes and announcements from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries show the colonial theatre as a very formal affair, from the tone of the language and the references to actors and actresses. Roles on stage were not performed by Thomas Henry or Rose Inchbald, but always by “Mr Henry” and “Miss Inchbald.” Patrons dressed in their finery and a visit to a performance was a grand formal occasion.
Even in modern times in the UK, Europe, and North America an evening at the theatre would often be in formal attire. This continues, even though the styles and mood of contemporary society have admitted relaxations of that norm and people may wear anything. Similar conventions have applied in the Caribbean, although formal wear gave way to semi-formal or ‘elegantly casual’ long ago.
In Guyana the National Cultural Centre (NCC) is a very special place. It became the premier theatre venue in the country and a place where many socio-cultural factors play out. The imposition of dress codes there is first of all observing the ancient tradition. But it also upkeeps a sense of national pride that goes with the country’s premier performance venue, and the largest, most elaborate theatre auditorium in the region (now surpassed, however, by the NAPA in Port of Spain, Trinidad). There is an attempt to preserve a sense of moment and prestige whenever one visits the place. Surely, the attempt is also to protect it from the kinds of deterioration that threatens places with no dress code.
The socio-cultural factors go deeper, and are central to the current conflicts arising from how the dress code is approached at the NCC. In the 1980s, the NCC did not only become the most prestigious theatre place, but also the place where the theatre was popularised, localised and proletarianised in Guyana. It returned the theatre to the working class and brought back the working class into the theatre. The popular plays, both local and foreign, that were offered there, and the rise of local Guyanese drama attracted thousands to the venue who made up a new audience for theatre in the country.
This audience revered the NCC as a prestigious place; it became a showpiece; a place to dress up to go to. So, not unlike the ancient tradition, thousands came decked out in their finery to attend the NCC – a fashion centre at which to show off clothes.
That is still the case. However, in several instances, this sense of dress is a grassroots, not a middle class consciousness, and many who turned up at the cultural centre violated the dress codes. In fact, many of the items named as prohibited modes of dress, were put on the list because of what the proletariat are accustomed to wear. Some items, too, belong to the casual wear of the contemporary popular culture. But the people are generally aware that these sporty items such as caps, three-quarter pants, slacks that hang off the hips, and tube tops are casual wear, and it is a small minority that would attempt to wear those to the NCC. The point is that people, particularly females, go there dressed to kill, and dressed in various notions of high fashion.
The biggest problem is that the authorities have seen it fit to name specific types, styles and kinds of material in their prohibited list that are seriously questioned by the fashion conscious, who want to know what is indecent or unacceptable about them. Prominent among these are ‘sleeveless’ or ‘armless’ tops and ‘fine straps.’ Women will turn up with pre-paid tickets, quite well dressed, and be denied entry into the theatre, not because they are not properly dressed, but simply because their attire includes those styles. Perhaps the authorities consider it inappropriate for women to bare their arms in public, regardless of how well dressed they are. The material denim is also banned, but while casual jeans might reasonably be considered too casual, it is very possible for one to be outstandingly elegant in an outfit made of or including denim.
These notions of appropriate dress confound contemporary fashion or even ordinary attire that would not attract anyone’s attention, except when the woman attempts to enter a public building. In the theatre, haute couture is one of the ostentatious traditions, and big theatre events will draw out the most elaborate fashionable designs. This is the case with such occasions as the Oscar Awards or Tony Awards Ceremonies, but most of the women attending those functions would be turned back at the door of Guyana’s National Cultural Centre. All those exposures, armless and strapless creations or fashionable denim which are included in the most formal haute couture would be considered too indecent for the NCC because they look at specific named items rather than whether someone is elegantly dressed.
The NCC loses sight of what a dress code is supposed to achieve and concentrates on minutiae. The emphasis is placed on what people are wearing at the door rather than on what they see on stage. The physical plant of the cultural centre has much greater problems than women’s bare arms. The frequent states of disrepair include uneven and unreliable sound amplification, the failure of some stage lights, unpredictable air conditioning and inadequate provisions for technical rehearsals.
Those are some of the real areas requiring strict scrutiny. Close attention to the efficient working of the performance facilities and services equal to that paid to the dress code would help to maintain the best traditions in the theatre.