“No brown after six” – I’ve heard this comment countless times in the evening when I turn up to a party wearing brown shoes and a lounge suit. Usually from persons wearing white sneakers or Birkenstocks. It amuses me that this rule is still so well known and often quoted, even if it’s intended ironically. Perhaps it amuses me because this one example encapsulates everything that we need to know about dress codes today. In the everyday lives of most people the idea of adhering to any kind of dress code has lost its relevance. What we wear has become a matter of personal taste like our choice of music, food or lifestyle in general.
In this particular instance, “no brown after six” is a maxim dating to the early 20th century. It implied that a gentleman should change into black evening dress before dinner. All that remains of this custom today is the suggestion that black dress shoes should be worn in the evening (and of course with a dinner suit). Since few men now follow the similar rule of “no brown in town”, fewer black shoes are seen at evening events, anyway. Instead, men come straight from their offices in their dark brown penny loafers and Chelsea boots. Even in its day, “no brown in town” wasn’t followed strictly outside of England (or London to be more precise) and in recent years this rule has been observed less and less – even in the City.
In continental Europe, the equivalent of “come as you are” is “tenue foncée” which is French for “dark lounge suit”. A white shirt and black shoes are the correct additions to said dark suit in the evenings, especially in conservative circles. This applies in most countries, including Italy. Visitors are often misled by the Italian penchant for brown shoes, and turn up in brown suede Oxfords at cocktails or dinner parties, only to find that most Italians wear black shoes to dinner. At the same time, Italy is a country of great stylistic diversity. What applies in conservative circles is totally irrelevant in others.
Dress codes played an important role in the 19th century, used mainly to differentiate between classes. They were implemented by the upper classes and social climbers had a hard time learning the rules. Those guidelines that are still quoted today reflect the everyday fashion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are, in short, out of touch with the modern world. It’s best to see them as a part of a tradition that we can choose to observe or not, depending on personal taste. I like to compare dress codes with table manners; it’s good to know them but they should be adapted to the realities of modern life. A quick lunch in the deli is not a state banquet, and a coffee with friends doesn’t call for the same clothes as a lunch in a smart restaurant.
Sartorial dress codes have also been closely linked to the right choice of shoe. Of course, there is so much more to this choice than just the dated concept of black for town and brown for country. When an occasion requires black shoes we still have to decide which model is best to wear; black cap-toes or tassel loafers, derbies or monk shoes. Each is acceptable nowadays but conveys a different message. A loafer is more casual than a lace-up, and a monk shoe is dressier than a derby.
The choice of brown shoes is even greater than black because of the different shades of brown available to wear, across different kinds of leather. Walnut, tan, siena, cappuccino, sand, caramel, honey, chocolate, ebony, sandalwood – I could go on. But, does the inherited formality of a particular shade of brown really matter? Or, have we reached a point where we can accept that the most important thing about clothes is how an individual feels when he wears them?
Thankfully, the modern gentleman is more interested in what pleases the eye than obeying rules from the past.