There was a time when I thought of a cruise as an affordable, elegant, luxury vacation experience. My every day life is not filled with gala socialite parties or red carpet glamor, but on a cruise ship I enjoy the feeling that I have somehow escaped my every day life and been transported to beautiful world that is completely different. I very much enjoy dressing up and that is why I choose a cruise line, Celebrity, where I can still wear a formal gown and not look too pretentious.
Just last week, I went formal gown shopping because Dillard’s had their prom dresses marked down to 65% off. I found a armfuls of potential dresses to try-on, staying away from the ones that looked too young or too “prommy”. I narrowed it down to an empire Grecian goddess style dress in midnight blue. Since I didn’t have my Mom or my daughter there for advice, I asked another lady in the dressing room what she thought of the dress after both her teen daughters said that they really liked the dress. I had to try not to stumble over my words or sound to snobby when they lady informed me that “they really don’t dress up that much any more on a cruise so you could get by with a short dress.” How could I tactfully tell her in a few seconds that I am well aware of all the dress code policies and even the trends of what people actually wear? There wasn’t time to tell her that I am an active cruise blogger, frequently visit cruise message boards, and keep cruise dress code page on my own web site. I kindly said, in what I hope didn’t sound totally elitist, that “We cruise Celebrity and many people still dress formally on Celebrity.”
As I drove home with my beautiful new gown, I reflected on how unfortunate it was that what she was trying to tell me was absolutely true. Most cruise lines have become more casual, and sadly, I feel that the relaxing of the dress codes has taken away an element of elegance that made cruising special.
Cruising as a Kid
When I was a kid I went to Catholic schools, which meant wearing a uniform to school every day. During the weekends and off times I was usually running around in too short bell-bottom hand me down jeans in the neighbor hood with my rug rat play mates. My parents were just regular folks, so we didn’t attend galas or black tie opera premiers. However, if my Dad had a particularly good year as a his computer terminal salesman, he would take the whole family on a cruise.
One of the most exciting things about going on a cruise, for me, was the idea that I would get to dress up for the formal nights. I would get so excited if I could find an affordable fancy dress to wear. I remember finding a long black and white plaid taffeta dress at Marshall’s at a significant discount that put it in my price range. I was so excited to have a true formal to wear on the cruise. If I got a box of “hand-me-downs” from a cousin or one of my sister’s friends, I would get so excited if there was a fancy dress in the box that I might be able to wear on my next cruise.
This was mostly in the 70’s and I have to admit that the idea of elegant and formal has changed a lot since then. Fabrics tended to be heavier and designs more basic. In the 80’s designs became more elaborate. The cost of a fashionable formal gown grew significantly, but even in that day and age, I managed to find bargains at discount stores and outlets.
Cruising as an Adult
When my now husband, then fiance booked a cruise for our honeymoon in 1993, one of the first things that I got excited about what getting new clothes for the cruise. I had a few dresses from my college days and a got to buy a few new dresses through out the year to wear on the cruise. It was so much fun to dress up nearly every night and go to dinner with my new husband accompanying me in his tuxedo. What a break from our every day jobs as an engineer and account manager.
In 2003, I didn’t even think about the dress code when booking my cruise. I told my agent that I wanted something with high service levels and a sophisticated atmosphere. He helped us find Celebrity which, at that time, still had three levels for dress code and requested that passengers observe the evening attire through out the ship except in the designated casual dining venue. I was so excited because I had lost my baby weight and was able to wear some of those formal and informal dresses I had worn ten years earlier on our honeymoon cruise. The whole ship was so elegant, with folks dressed very beautifully through out the ship. We felt like you were attending a big Hollywood premier or a gala event. I suppose there were a few people here and there who weren’t quite dressed up, but they were such the exception that they seemed to fade into the back ground.
Changes at the Airlines And Expansion of the Industry
Two things started to happen around or after that 2003 cruise that changed the cruise industry, probably forever.
The first big change started when rising fuel prices resulted in the airlines trying to maintain their profit margins by keeping fares low but making up the difference by charging for luggage. This meant around extra $25, or more, each way for cruisers that were flying to their port city. For a family of 4 that could mean an extra $200 or even more if they were to check an extra bag or even one bag depending on the airline. This resulted in cruise passengers wanting to pack as lightly as possible. For some men, the perception was that packing a suit or a tux for a man was just too bulky or heavy. Some ladies thought that they would rather pack a pair of black pants and several sparkly tops rather than an evening gown.
The second big change came with the major expansion of the industry. Following the success of the Mariner class of ships, many cruise lines started to build more and more “Mega Ships”, with all the bells and whistles that were designed to attract people who didn’t like the idea of a traditional cruise. Rock walls, ice rinks, shopping malls, mini golf, basketball courts, specialty restaurants, open dining times, and more casual dress codes were brought in to make cruising appeal to a broader audience. Gone were the days of cruising being just for newly weds and nearly dead, cruising was now marketed as the vacation of choice for people of all ages and back grounds.
These two big changes led to major overhauls of the dress codes on most mainstream cruise lines. Two big changes were some lines, allowing first jeans and then Carnival allowing tailored shorts in the dining room during dinner time on casual nights. The second change was the gradual transition from a dress code that was for “the evening through out the ship” to a dress code that was just in place for the Main Dining Room or in a designated dining room.
The cruise industry seems stronger than ever and the old traditionalist, like me, are learning to compromise. Formal night participation seems to vary by cruise lines. Most lines tend to have a dress code with some sort of minimum dress requirements and then state that more formal attire like tuxedos and gowns are also fine. In practice many traditionalist still like to dress up for formal nights and remain in formal attire for the evening. Those in shorts and jean are celebrating the fact that are no longer “violators” for wearing such attire.
In terms of what people actually wear, it really depends on the line you sail, length of cruise, and itinerary. Entry level lines like Carnival and NCL seem to be the most casual and lines that are more upscale but not luxury tend to be more dressy. Royal Caribbean is reported to be slightly more dressy than Carnival and NCL. Princess, Celebrity and Holland America are slightly more dressy in their written code and even more dressy in the practice of passengers. With so many choices and options, it is not unheard of for men to wear tuxedos and women to wear gowns on Carnival, nor is it unheard of for men to wear jeans and a polo shirt on casual night on Celebrity. Some Celebrity cruisers choose to completely forgo formal nights and wear all “smart casual” by choosing alternate dining on designated formal evenings. Others like me, choose to go all out with gowns and tuxedos on Celebrity. Many luxury lines line Oceania and Regent are “resort casual” every night, but because of the price point, tend to attract the “country club” set who tend to dress in very upscale casual attire. All lines will also have a few passengers that simply ignore the dress code completely.
Options for an Old Traditionalist
While I would prefer to cruise on a ship where the dress code for the evening is requested though out the ship, I have learned to settle for a line where the minimum for the evening is smart casual with formal required in the MDR. It would be nice to find a moderately priced cruise lines that could carve out at niche which would retain that elegance that had attracted me to the vacation option for so long. However the more upscale line that comes mind is Crystal, a true luxury brand that is out of my price range.
The funny thing is that now formal gowns seem to be more affordable than ever. Many designers have started producing simple designs with elegant lines and low price points. New manufacturing techniques have resulted in elegant looking, inexpensive fabrics. I tend to shop sales and discount stores where I’ve often found dresses for under $50, some as low as $25. Back in the 80’s and 90’s I know I paid close to $200 for my formal dresses. The mid-night blued dress that I purchased at Dillard’s was only $41, and from a distance could work as a red-carpet Oscar dress.
Since it is so affordable for me to wear a long gown, I want to make sure the rest of my family looks equally as snazzy. I have to choose a line where my husband will still dress up. He has told me that if we were to take a cruise on a line that allows shorts in the MDR and where most people don’t bother dressing up for formal night, that he will do the same as the rest of the crowd. Quite frankly, I see him in a T-shirt and shorts every day when he changes after work. For work he leaves the house in a sports shirt with either khakis or jeans. He only wears his suits for business trips with important customers. It is nice for me to see him on a cruise in either a business suit or a tuxedo. He owns his own tuxedo and has several elegant business suits. My kids must take after me and they would rather have the chance to get dressed up too. My son wants me to buy him a tux for the next cruise because he says he’ll “have it for prom too.” My daughter can’t wait for me to take her to Ross or the next Dillards sale to buy her a special dress for the next cruise.
With so many different cruise lines and ships in the market place cruisers have many from which to choose. Most people would say that cruising is all about having lots of different choices and options. For many the idea of dressing up had kept them away from choosing a cruise. For others it was the reason to choose a cruise. Now it seems that in one shape or another most cruise lines have options for all. If you’d like to learn more about cruise line dress codes, please visit the Cruise Talk Dress Code Page.