Formal night on a Cunard cruise in the 1940s. Picture: Cunard Cruise Lines
Formal night on a Cunard cruise in the 1940s. Picture: Cunard Cruise Lines

The demise of formal nights on cruises

By Hannah Sampson Time of article published Dec 19, 2019

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Gerry Eggert has taken a lot of cruises in his 78 years. But the Chilliwack resident has noticed something recently: People aren't dressing up like they used to.

He took his concerns to Facebook and quizzed a group of fellow Holland America Line fans: "This should draw some controversy!" he began. "My wife and I ... don't particularly like the 'relaxed' dress code HAL now allows in their main dining rooms, especially on 'gala' formal evenings." He asked how fellow cruisers in the group felt.

The query struck a nerve and sparked more than a few squabbles, differences of opinion and downright insults.

"Only undertakers wear suits in today's business environment!" wrote one retiree who doesn't care to dress up on vacation.

"If you want to dress like a construction worker eat outside with the construction workers!" one woman wrote.

"Dress like you are going somewhere nice, not McDonald's or Burger King," someone else suggested.

But the conversation revealed a deeper truth: Formal nights, a holdover from a grand cruising tradition, are becoming less formal - when they exist at all. And while that might be welcome news for travellers who just want to relax on vacation, it's a sad turn for many who love to dine with a dressed-up crowd.

"There has been a bit of an evolution in the dress code overall," says Colleen McDaniel, executive editor of the news and review site Cruise Critic. "It doesn't mean that everybody loves that. And in fact, many people who visit our message boards who are very much in favor of a formal night - and a formal dress policy - really, really don't like it when people show up who are not in formalwear."

Cruise lines typically have a night or two during a sailing where passengers are encouraged to dress up for dinner in certain restaurants and get professional photos taken. The suggested attire varies, but typically, it includes at least a dress, pantsuit or skirt and blouse for women, and dress pants and a collared shirt for men.

Many lines that still host some kind of dressier-than-usual night have eased requirements or made their dress code a mere recommendation. And as the number of dining options on ships has expanded, so have nonformal venues beyond the main dining rooms.

Celebrity Cruises, which describes itself as a "modern luxury" option, changed formal night to "evening chic" in 2015, allowing designer jeans and making a sport coat or blazer option for men. Holland America Line introduced "gala nights" in 2015; while a jacket and tie there is preferred, it is not required. 

Carnival Cruise Line changed its formal night to "cruise elegant" several years ago, adopting "more of a resort-style dress guideline." Norwegian Cruise Line has a "dress up or not night." 

And Royal Caribbean International recently started holding a "wear your best" night on cruises of five nights or fewer, with the message: "Say goodbye to Formal Night, and hello to Wear Your Best. Get glamorous. Be chic. It's time to shine - your way."

For some travellers, the loosened rules signal a disappointing end to a beloved way of life - not just in cruising, but also in society in general. They point out that travelers don't dress up as much to take a flight, or go out to dinner, or attend a wedding or religious service.

"The change in dress is a reflection of the change in times," said one user on the Cruise Critic message boards in November.

Many of the companies that have relaxed their policies say they're responding to preferences of modern passengers, who may prefer a more casual vibe on board, not wanting to load down their luggage with suits or evening gowns. More people are cruising, an estimated 30 million this year, and that growth is coming from travelers who aren't necessarily looking for fancy experiences, insiders say.

Other lines, many of them newer, eschew the idea of a dedicated formal night altogether, opting for "country club casual" (Oceania), "elegant casual" (Viking Ocean) or merely "more than a bathing suit" (the new Virgin Voyages). 

Virgin, which launches its first ship next year, has made a point of rethinking almost every element of a cruise - "which includes pesky dress codes," chief commercial officer Nirmal Saverimuttu said in an email. "If our Sailors want to get fancy and dress up, they're welcome to, but if they want to keep it cool and casual, we say go for it."

At least one operator isn't budging from tradition. Cunard, a line famous for its trans-Atlantic crossings and old-school glamour, holds two or three "gala evenings" every seven days of a sailing where guests are encouraged to "be at your most glamorous when the clock strikes 6 p.m." That means something like a flowing ball gown for women and a tux, suit or kilt with jacket for men. 

Bow ties, regular ties or cravats are all acceptable. But even Cunard has nonformal settings where dressed-down can go, including the buffet, casino and pub.

The Washington Post


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