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From tuxedos to almost anything goes: changing dress codes in Hong Kong

Women wore ball gowns and men were in tuxedos as they entered the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. The invitation indicated a black-tie event and all but one guest kept to the dress code.

“There was a guy there dressed in a polo shirt and long shorts. He must have been someone important because he didn’t seem to care that he was underdressed,” recalls the society editor of a luxury magazine.

“Some ladies had really gone all out to dress up, and I went to the trouble of renting a tuxedo and learning how to put on a bow tie from YouTube. I was really stressing out about the whole thing,” he says.

The well-heeled society women at his table couldn’t identify the casually dressed young man, who seemed to be from China.

Ignoring dress code is not a new phenomenon. The society editor also remembers a black-and-white themed event where one woman stood out from the crowd in a red dress. “It was like, Wow! Check me out,” he says.

Style maven and owner of Sevva, Ms B’s Cakery and C’est la B cafes Bonnae Gokson says it shows a lack of etiquette when guests do not follow dress codes, because following them is a sign of respect to the event and the host.

She cited the annual Met Gala ball, one of the fashion highlights in the society calendar in New York and Kanye West’s appearance at this year’s ball wearing ripped jeans and a silver sequined Balmain jacket.

“To me, the Metropolitan Museum is an established institution for culture and arts. It’s a matter of respect for me to dress in appropriate attire. Respect to oneself and a basic level of cultural respect and behaviour,” she says.

Lucy Hume of Debrett’s, the quintessentially British etiquette guide, says dress codes are important for the guests and the host.

“A dress code can give a sense of occasion to a particular event and help make it feel special – if you stipulate ‘black tie’ on an invitation, for example, your guests will know to expect a certain level of formality. A dress code can also put guests at ease by clearing up ambiguity and ensuring that they’re not the only person wearing jeans and trainers to a formal drinks reception, or a lounge suit to a casual supper party.”

Artist Margaret Yau Lee Mau-ki, who attends many society functions, says for big gala events such as New Year’s Eve parties people will ask about the dress code two to three months ahead to plan their outfit.

“One year it was a leather jacket theme and it was fun for the younger generation. The dress codes now are certainly different from ball gowns from more than 10 years ago,” recalls Yao, wife of Jeffrey Yau, founder and CEO of luxury eyewear chain Puyi Optical.

In the past 10 to 15 years dress codes in Hong Kong have relaxed, but how far people should go is cause for debate.

Paul Lau Sze-lai, who has been with Hugo’s restaurant at the Hyatt Regency in Tsim Sha Tsui for 36 years, has seen how dress codes have evolved. He remembers when the fine-dining European restaurant had a sign at the door stating men had to wear a jacket and tie and women had to sport “proper attire”.

“If the men didn’t have a jacket and tie we would supply it for them. But by the end of the 1980s they didn’t have to wear ties,” he says.

These days the dress code at the restaurant is even more relaxed. Men must wear long trousers, and the only footwear not allowed is sandals. Women can wear pretty much whatever they want.

“Today you can be yourself and be casual and comfortable. You can be sporty casual too. Not wearing a jacket isn’t wrong – some outfits don’t need jackets,” he says.

While the dress code is explicitly explained over the phone to guests when they book tables, they may sometimes forget to pass on the message to their friends or guests, which results in some red faces upon arrival.

“Some guests may have forgotten, but we don’t want to upset other people who may question why another diner can wear shorts when they have put the effort into dressing properly,” explains Lau.

To rectify the situation, some diners rush out and quickly buy a pair of long trousers, while others are strategically seated in corner seats.

“But when it comes to brunch it’s difficult because we have a buffet and our guests get up to choose their own food,” says Lau. “In this case we offer to get food for them.”

The only restaurant in Hong Kong that still requires men to wear a jacket for dinner is Gaddi’s in The Peninsula Hong Kong. The hotel offers no further comment except to say: “We strongly encourage our guests to adhere to our dress code at all restaurants; and in some cases, should a guest forget to bring his jacket to dinner at Gaddi’s, we will lend him one of ours.”

Long trousers are a must at many fine-dining restaurants in Hong Kong; Shang Palace, the two- Michelin-star Chinese restaurant in the Kowloon Shangri-la, even has trousers on hand for male guests who show up in shorts.

Yau reports that when she went to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon earlier this year for lunch, she was surprised to see a table of diners very casually dressed. “I think they were tourists, but they were having caviar and fine wines for lunch.”

Desmond So Chung-fai, host of TVB’s Dolce Vita, has a side job as an MC at weddings and has seen guests turning up in T-shirts and jeans.

“I understand some people are just being practical, or they don’t have the proper clothing. It’s disrespectful but they don’t feel it is. Some think at certain venues like Chinese banquet halls, it’s OK to dress casual.”

So believes upbringing, or exposure to international events, has a lot to do with knowing what to wear for the occasion. “Chinese are big on ritual, for weddings and funerals. For those us who have lived in the West, it is important to respect the dress code. On the other hand, Chinese people know not to wear bright colours or red to funerals.”

When asked about dress codes for gala events, he says there aren’t many egregious violations because they are very open to interpretation.

“There are certain events in life that require formality, like weddings and funerals. Out of respect for the people and the occasion, it’s nice to put on a certain outfit to celebrate certain events,” he says.

Two years ago, So set up the East-West Institute of Applied Etiquette, advising people on what to wear in the workplace, particularly those in banking.

“Young guys think they should look like David Beckham or Andy Lau Tak-wah, or look like G-Dragon, the lead singer of Korean pop band Big Bang. They are extremely stylish, but the suits are very tight and the lapels and ties are too thin. When young people start to wear suits for banking, they have to have credibility – but do you have it when you look like a Korean star?” So says.

He also points out that purple shirts with silver ties, or dark shirts with purple ties, may look good on stage but are too radical for financial institutions.

For women, the length of the skirt is an issue. So reports many wear a boyfriend shirt with very short shorts so it looks like they aren’t wearing anything underneath, or black bras under translucent white shirts.

“I have banking friends in human resources in Hong Kong and they have had to send people home to change because the skirts or dresses are too short or showing too much skin.”

When So talks to his young clients, he explains that their personal image reflects the reputation of the bank. “But at the same time you can’t blame them because they don’t have exposure to what they should be wearing. For their reference they are looking at popular culture like K-pop. Who doesn’t want to be good looking?”