Cracking the NYC Dress Code (Closed Set with Julie Bensman)

Dress code

Anne Hathaway by Mario Testino in Happily Ever After from American Vogue, November 2010Anne Hathaway by Mario Testino in Happily Ever After from American Vogue, November 2010,

Dress codes have always confused me. Like, what exactly is “smart casual”? And who came up with such an obnoxious phrase? I kid you not, I once received an invitation that advised guests to arrive in “contemporary business casual”. My friends and I spent an entire evening mulling over its meaning (the more wine we drank, the more we decided a simple LBD is always in style). Black tie; white tie; no shirt, no shoes, no problem…it’s a tricky business, those dress codes.

Last week was slammed with business lunches and dinners and besides a potential mercury problem (I realized, in writing this column, that I had tuna tartare five times in 48 hours), I was fortunate to dine at four very different restaurants…with four very different dress codes. These weren’t codes declared on invitations or on signs at the door, but codes the patrons seemed to adopt naturally, perhaps based on restaurant cuisine, location and/or reputation. Sensitive Reader Alert: I fully admit that the below is one person’s view of a space and its inhabitants on one particular weeknight and that I am making gross generalizations for the sake of a cohesive column. That being said, below are my between-bite observations:


The Setai Fifth Avenue’s Bar on Fifth – Monday, 6pm

To Dine: A glass of rose; the most unbelievable bar nuts I’ve ever had.

To Dress: Located seconds away from the Empire State building and surrounded by a sea of offices, it’s no surprise that the look of the crowd (especially at this hour) screams corporate. Straight-out-of-college kids look uncomfortable in work wear from Club Monaco, J. Crew and Banana Republic. The older set looks bored in Canali, Joseph Abboud, and Brooks Brothers. It’s a blanket of gray, black and tan…but those bar nuts, did I mention them?


Lavo – Thursday, 7pm

To Dine: A bottle of Sancerre; tuna tartare, chopped Louie salad, raw oysters, polenta fries, and deep-fried Samoa girl scout cookies (!)

To Dress: Look up “Afterwork Midtown Manhattan Hotspot” in Webster’s and you’ll find a picture of this place. The bar is five deep and the ratio of males to females is maaaaybe 9:1. Leering eyes up top; suits, suits, and more suits below – I spy Ferragamo, Hugo Boss, and Brioni. The ladies teeter in stilettos and painted-on dresses (are they coming from work?!) from the likes of Juicy Couture, Max Azria, and perhaps a D&G.


Lure Fishbar – Friday, 1pm

To Dine: Water, tuna nicoise salad (Jeremy Piven, here I come)

To Dress: If Lavo is a scene for dinner, Lure takes the cake for lunch. Everybody knows everybody; people dart from table to table to say hello and share bits of gossip. The men who stand out in the downtown casual crowd are the ones wearing John Varvatos, which is not to take away from the cute boys wearing tight black jeans, white v-necks, and vintage leather jackets. It’s raining, hence many, many Wellies, but their practicality is balanced up top with chic ensembles by Marc Jacobs, Tory Burch, and Missoni.


1534 – Friday, 9pm

To Dine: Napoleon’s Loss cocktail (Anejo Tequila, Lemon Juice, Ginger-Agave Nectar, finished off with some smoky Mezcal)

To Dress: The reggae music drifting up the Prince St. stairs beckon us down to find a low-key crowd dressed in low-key, albeit fashionable, garb. Think Rag & Bone men’s shirts, cuffs rolled up to barely reveal sleeve tattoos; The Row $250 tees looking oh-so-sloppy chic on the ladies. It’s Friday night and it’s New York City and it’s dark and there’s music and drinks and when these five things come together, who really cares what you’re wearing, right?



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In memory of Tinsley McFarland, who lived her life – and licked her plate – with relish.

Julie Bensman, editor-at-largeThe Fashion Spot's Editor-at-Large, Julie Bensman, is also the Entertainment Editor for Niche Media, whose titles include Gotham, Hamptons, Ocean Drive and LA Confidential. Closed Set is a collection of her musings on all things fashion, from an editor’s desk to your desktop.