When Fred Astaire’s character receives an invitation to a formal party in the 1935 musical film Top Hat, he breaks into a number celebrating the ritual of dressing up, singing “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”. This was the age (if the movies are to be believed) when men were never seen outside the house open-necked or hatless. Sadly, formal attire has suffered a slovenly backlash in the years since.
Consider the Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up at the weekend. The event has a reasonable dress code: tuxedos for men, gowns for women. But the complainers never miss their cue. There are gripes that the weather is too warm for bowties, that telling people what to wear is sexist and that the observance of a dress code is a foolish and antiquated thing. But we don’t blame Cannes for maintaining some decorum. This isn’t Sundance – denim and flannel are out of step with the French festival’s identity. Alas, things can be taken too far, such as the time director Asif Kapadia’s wife was barred from a premiere due to her high heels failing to rise quite high enough.
In 1949 the mayor of Cannes joined a chorus of complaints over the festival’s formalwear rules and special screenings were introduced for people who wanted to dress down. But many directors felt that those who arrived in open-neck shirts were disdaining the work on screen. Now, as ever, dressing up is as much about respecting the occasion as it is about looking sharp.