Dressing for a cruise: farewell, formal nights: Travel Weekly

Rebekah Tobin

Cruises have come a long way since I covered the industry as Travel Weekly’s cruise editor in the early to mid-2000s, and one of the most obvious changes starts in my suitcase.

I currently have my luggage open on my bedroom floor and propped up in my closet. I’m preparing for a Mediterranean cruise, courtesy of Celebrity Cruises. I’m not sure what I’m going to pack.

And I’m laughing at myself because almost exactly 20 years ago I was preparing for a Mediterranean cruise courtesy of Celebrity. And I knew exactly what I would wear every night.

On cruises of the past, the rules were pretty much set. To remind myself of those earlier days, I pull down a book about cruising in Greece (which I helped edit) and read the section on evening wear. “The daily bulletin, delivered to your stateroom each day, will inform you of the correct dress code for the evening,” it says. “Formal means a tuxedo or dark suit and tie for men and a cocktail dress, long dress, robe or smart pantsuit for women… Check your cruise records to determine the number of formal nights… Men who don’t do this. If you own a tuxedo, maybe you can borrow one in advance…”

If I remember correctly, there were at least two, probably three, formal nights on this celebrity cruise. My husband wore a suit.

This time I can’t even convince him to bring a sports jacket.

And that’s really not necessary. The three-tiered formal/informal/casual dress proposition on most large ships has been removed from general practice, along with the cigar bar, internet cafe, and midnight buffet. When I was a cruise editor, I had half a closet devoted to dresses of varying formality. Now I have some sundresses and a fun foamy dress I bought from TJ Maxx because I was going on vacation. (As time went by, so did my waistline, and most of those old clothes didn’t fit anymore.)

The formal evening had many, many followers, myself included. I remember stepping out of my cabin on a Holland America Line ship to find all the passengers who just a few hours ago were lounging around in t-shirts and cargo shorts, now gorgeously dressed and as elegant as they come could be. Many men wore tuxedos and women wore floor-length dresses. The act of dressing up had everyone animated, and at the bars and restaurant, drinks were flowing, laughter erupted, eyes (and jewels) sparkled. On formal nights, people might have paid for that extra bottle of expensive wine. Photographers were busy on formal evenings. On formal nights some people booked into the “alternative” restaurant.

But its card was marked even then, as lines like Norwegian Cruise Line (and to a lesser extent, yacht-like ships like SeaDream) ditched the formal structure and made it optional. And people just wanted to be more casual on vacation. The trend was aided by ship design, as ships grew larger and dining venues more diverse, allowing more cruisers to dress differently for the occasion and not just be relegated to room service or the lido on formal evenings. Throughout the decade, the formal/semi-formal/casual dress code was a thing—until it wasn’t anymore.

Now there are lines that are casual, dressy, dressy, chic or elegant and most lines leave it up to the individual to dress according to their comfort level. Holland America has gala nights and the FAQ even explains the terminology. “For many, the term ‘formal’ was misleading as it implies a specific type of attire… ‘Gala’ still implies festive or elegant without enticing guests to bring clothes that the majority of guests will not wear.”

Some lines still adhere to a more traditional dress code. On formal evenings on Silversea, men can dress “informally” if they wish, but jackets are required in public areas. Deep in its FAQs, Royal Caribbean says there are still three tiers of dress code (casual, casual, and formal), but it says the right look varies by venue, suggesting the days when room service is open ordered to avoid a formal night are long gone. Cunard has two gala evenings on its seven-day cruises; but even then it says, “It is your decision whether or not to attend these evenings.”

But I think the magic of taking off the beachwear and putting on a fresh outfit is still there. Celebrity still encourages guests to dress up twice on my cruise, and anyone who still wants to wear the full tuxedo can do so. My experience is that guests still enjoy these evenings and go to some lengths to dress up. It’s just that the emphasis now is on cruiser choice. Which brings me back to my suitcase.

I’m sure my new dress and I’ll take a walk on the boardwalk. Finally, many cruisers have another motivation for dressing up and posing: Instagram. But that’s a different insight.

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