It kicked off with sneakers. On October 23, Kaylan Colbert and her husband, William Johnson, arrived to dine at Umi Sushi in Atlanta. However, they were turned away because Johnson, who is Black, was wearing Nike Air Force 1s. Umi’s website says it has a “strictly enforced” dress code, which bars “ball caps, sneakers, athletic wear and sports jerseys,” but the couple says not only had Johnson worn those exact shoes to Umi before, but a woman at the bar, who was white, was also wearing sneakers. It escalated from there. An assistant manager told the couple the woman was wearing “dress sneakers,” while the owner, Farshid Arshid, threatened to call the police on Johnson. While Arshid has apologized and said he’d rethink the sneaker policy, there are calls to boycott Umi over racial discrimination.
“Of course owners can make their own rules and decide how they want their restaurants to be run,” Colbert told Eater Atlanta. “But if you’re not going to enforce those rules on everybody, then yes, it does become a discriminatory practice at that point.”
Similar stories go viral with semi regularity: A Baltimore restaurant denied entry to a Black child because of the dress code, while letting a similarly dressed white child sit and dine. A Detroit sports bar faced backlash for a guideline dictating that patrons not wear “ghetto gear,” among other things. “I don’t like going into places and seeing that,” said one former patron. “It felt like a modern-day ‘no colored’ sign to me.” Dress codes — particularly ones barring clothing like sneakers, hats, “athletic wear,” and Timberland boots — frequently target Black customers, while white customers are allowed to dress as they choose.
As Vice’s Jelisa Castrodale wrote in early July, dress codes “are perhaps the last ‘acceptable’ way for restaurants and bars to scrutinize and discriminate against Black patrons, and those ‘at the discretion of management’ disclaimers just serve to underline their purpose.” And yet, despite the rounds of news outrage, some restaurants still insist on implementing them, whether it be the racist dog whistle of “no athletic attire” or class signifiers like “jacket required” and “cocktail attire.” Until now, the latter category has been how a restaurant advertises that it is a place worthy of occasion, a different experience than going to a diner or a Chili’s. But restaurants are perfectly capable of using menus, setting, and price points to demonstrate how special they are without firm dress codes. With a pandemic raging across the country, and nationwide protests fighting anti-Black racism, restaurants are facing a unique opportunity to change how business is done, and an imperative to make things equitable. One small step in this direction is to abolish dress codes.
According to Reuben A. Buford May, author of Urban Nightlife: Entertaining Race, Class, and Culture in Public Space, dress codes that obviously target Black patrons go back to the 1970s, as business owners attempted to bar Black customers in ways that couldn’t be defined as segregation. However, these dress codes really began to proliferate in the early 2000s. “There’s a little bit of affluence [in the Black community], and then people can kind of try different places,” he says. “So these kinds of customs pop up as a way to slow that.” Dress codes are a tool to codify de facto segregation, keeping Black customers out of “white” businesses.
Those types of dress codes come with an air of plausible deniability, and the excuse that if a white person were to dress the same way, they too would be denied entry. But most of the time, non-Black people wind up slipping by the code. May recounts bringing two Black men, two white men, and two Latino men to nightclubs in Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. “They were becoming frustrated, particularly the white guys, because they saw that they were dressed like their Black peers, but the Black peers were receiving greater scrutiny,” he says.
Dress codes largely rely on the discretion of staff, many of whom might be inclined to overlook some people more than others because of race or gender. It’s not that restaurants aren’t allowed to be formal, but that “who gets accommodated is based upon the manager or maitre d’ making the exception and providing the material necessary,” says May. If a jacket is required, the restaurant can decide to whom a reserve jacket will be bestowed, or whose jeans allow for bending of the rules. And the rules often get bent away from Black people.
Food writer Karon Liu also notes how easy it is for restaurants to not adhere to their own codes. Commander’s Palace in New Orleans is an old-school Creole restaurant, which lists on its website that it requires “Business Attire,” meaning that jackets are “preferred” for men, jeans are discouraged, and shorts aren’t allowed. Liu and his partner brought suits to change into for their reservation, but “what did we see when we got in? Dudes with short-sleeved polos.” While Commander’s Palace doesn’t specify long sleeves under its requirement of “collared shirts,” a golf shirt and chinos feels closer to casual than business attire.
Those codes also discriminate on the basis of gender and gender expression. As Soleil Ho wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, the “jackets for gentlemen” requirement of some upscale restaurants can lead to discomfort and discrimination for trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming customers: “When certain items are recommended or required for ‘gentlemen’ and ‘ladies,’ what do you wear when you straddle the line — when you’re a masculine-of-center nonbinary person or a trans person who struggles with passing as your gender?” Twitter user Jared B. recalls a time where he felt bouncers were using a bar’s dress code as an excuse for homophobic discrimination. In 2014, he recalls going to a reggae night at the Eighteenth Street Lounge in Washington, D.C. “I absolutely wore shorts there on other occasions and saw other people in very casual clothes there many times,” he tells Eater. But this time, dressed in pleated Brooks Brothers shorts, a button-down shirt, a bow tie, and lace-up dress shoes, he was told his particular fashion was not appropriate.
“Fashion changes a lot of the things [dress codes] supposedly ban,” says May. Even if bouncers and maitre d’s don’t intend to be malicious, they are still enforcing norms, which change depending on time and place. In the wake of the pandemic, some restaurants have developed new ways outside of dress codes to elevate the dining experience. The reservations page on Tock for Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry, which previously encouraged jackets and forbade more casual clothing, now says, “There is no dress code, please dress comfortably!” Practically, it doesn’t make business sense to set up barriers for customers at a time when many restaurants are hanging on by a thread.
Getting rid of dress codes is about more than just business savvy. Most importantly, doing away with hard rules about dress means doing away with the ability to enforce prejudice. “The most frequent justification given by owners or managers is, ‘We have a particular type of clientele that we want and we want people to be safe,’” says May. “If people continue to match danger to Black bodies,” as he puts it, what Black people wear won’t make a difference. However, retiring a restaurant dress code at least make it easier to call a racist action what it is. When there’s no dress code to hide behind, outright discrimination becomes more obvious. And if a diner is upset because they’re eating next to someone in Air Force 1s or without a jacket? Restaurants can enforce a new “mind your own business when something isn’t hurting you or others” policy, which almost everyone can get behind.
Daniel Fishel is a Black illustrator based in New York City.