Break it down: Inside the world of clubs, lounges and dress codes
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2009 - Four weeks and dozens of media interviews later, Regis Murayi, one of the six black Washington University students who were kept from entering a Chicago nightclub, has finally had a chance to catch his breath.
He has accepted an apology from Original Mother’s, the club that’s been under fire since students reported that a manager told them that their baggy pants violated its dress code. And he has spent significant time thinking about the value of dress codes, how they are worded and the ways in which they are enforced.
"It’s an establishment’s right to set up a dress code if they want a certain standard of dress,” Murayi said during an interview on the Washington U. campus recently.
"You can’t go to a really nice restaurant wearing jeans. It’s just not right. What my experience has been with dress codes, however, is they have been created in a discriminatory manner and that the things they say violate their dress code, in my opinion, have targeted specifically black men and have allowed them to reject black men from bars and restaurants.”
Anyone who has explored the nightlife in a major American city is likely familiar with dress codes in some form. They range from the simple, “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” to more controversial polices covering caps, dress shirts and styles of pants.
And in the wake of the Chicago incident, dress codes have again become a hot topic of conversation.
J.S. Onesimo Sandoval, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Saint Louis University, said the dress code issue is hardly new. “These codes have been around for decades,” he said. “It’s a reminder that race is still an important factor in our society.”
Nightclub managers say they use dress codes not to discriminate against people of a certain race, but to make sure that guests feel comfortable with the crowd around them. Deciding whom to let in isn't an exact science, and figuring out how to enforce the house policy can be difficult, they admit.
"The dress code is the toughest thing we deal with as a nightclub," said Matt Ratz, manager of Club 15.
FROM CHICAGO TO ST. LOUIS
Murayi, the university’s senior class treasurer who joined roughly 200 classmates at Original Mother's that October night, said he didn’t see a dress code policy posted anywhere. He said he had no indication a confrontation was coming. But that doesn’t mean he was surprised by the incident.
“I’ve had experience with dress code issues before,” he said.
“I’ve been to places where [bars] have posted dress codes saying no baggy jeans, no dreadlocks, which is a strictly African-American male hair style, no cornrows, no chains, no jerseys, no backwards basketball caps. I’ve seen dress codes posted that pretty much try to explain what they see as a stereotypical black man.”
Added Sandoval: “You’re not allowed to discriminate based on race these days, but you can use a kind of laissez-faire racism -– using other attributes to discriminate that are highly correlated to a racial group.”
A lawyer for Original Mother’s has said that the nightclub does not believe it discriminated against the group because of race, but that it would issue an apology because the students had a bad experience. The Washington U. students said at a recent news conference that the bar not only agreed to apologize for the incident, but also would give sensitivity training to its managers. The students have agreed not to seek money or file a lawsuit.
The incident has brought attention specifically to dress code policies that cover baggy jeans. But Sandoval said he’s also aware of clubs that ban apparel such as backward hats or emblazoned T-shirts, which can sometimes be a symbol of gang affiliation. He said he understands that owners want to filter out people who could cause trouble.
“It’s a matter of context,” he said. “The question is are you trying to get gangs out, or are you doing it for more malicious purposes. It’s a touchy line.”
In the case of the Washington U. students, Sandoval said because students say that a white student, Jordan Roberts, was let into the club even after he switched pants with Murayi, who had been rejected wearing the same jeans, it showed that the policy wasn’t applied in a fair way.
Murayi said he has other friends who have had run-ins over dress codes at bars across the country. He said he has never had that experience in St. Louis.
Charles Gooden, interim dean of student affairs at Harris-Stowe State University, said students at his institution haven’t run into similar trouble here, either.
Gooden said many of the students regularly go out in blue jeans and casual attire. “I see people out with a little bit of everything,” he said.
“It may have been a unique situation that these students were confronted,” Gooden said. “You don’t anticipate it, and it’s highly unusual in 2009.”
Fernando Cutz, Washington U.’s senior class president who said he was allowed to enter Original Mother’s but came outside to argue on the rejected students’ behalf, said he has never been to a bar or club in St. Louis where he’s noticed or been told of a dress code.
“I haven’t been in a situation where a friend was prevented from entering,” he said. “It all came as a big surprise to me.”
Since the incident, however, he and his classmates have received messages from people across the country telling them that they’ve run into problems wearing baggy jeans or oversized shirts at bars and clubs.
Eddie Holman, who runs a nightlife promotion company called The SYGU (Step Your Game Up) group, said he's had cases in which black club-goers who seemingly followed a house dress code were kept in line while white guests who came after them were allowed inside.
Holman said in his experience, dress codes are often used by clubs to keep out people who they think will pick fights. "The thought process is if you're not willing to put on nice clothes to come into a venue, you're probably more concerned about making trouble than frequenting the business. The problem comes when places, in trying to keep out that bad element, don't know how to discern among people who might be trouble and people who aren't. ;
"It's a slippery slope with dress codes," Holman added. "They can be used as a tool to manage a crowd, but when you single someone out because of race that's crossing the line. And when you do it because of race, you can't hide it."
LOCAL CLUB MANAGERS WEIGH IN
Matt Schicker, general manager of Mandarin Lounge and Pepper Lounge in St. Louis, said some confrontations with guests over dress policies are inevitable. His venues on certain nights -- usually weekends -- outlaw jeans, tennis shoes and baseball caps. (Mandarin Lounge tends to be more formal and Pepper Lounge more casual, he said.)
Schicker said the dress code varies depending on what’s taking place inside the lounges that night. The policy is put into writing on a nightly basis, he said, and the bouncer has discretion about whom to let in. Schicker said guests can call ahead to inquire about the night’s dress code.
“We’re making sure we have a good crowd in there and that patrons don’t feel threatened by other clients,” he said. “It’s a club, so if you’re not dressed to impress or dressed nicer than normal, we won’t let you in.”
On nights when jeans are allowed, Schicker said people working the front door will sometimes ask guests wearing baggy jeans to “pull your pants up.” He said people who are rejected because of their attire can still get in if they come back wearing clothes that fit the dress code.
“We’re not in this business to discriminate for any reason, and we want to be as fair as possible across the board,” he said. “We just want a good, clean crowd.”
Similar to Mandarin and Pepper Lounges, the Club 15 policy can differ by the night. Ratz, the club's manager, said he prefers that guests don't wear hats -- but if it's baseball season and people are wearing Cardinals caps after a game, he said he typically makes an exception. Blue jeans are allowed, Ratz said, so long as they aren't baggy or sagging. "If you're wearing pants below your butt, it's a sign of someone you don't want in your place," he said.
Ratz said that policy -- like the others -- "has nothing to do with race" and everything to do with "how that person is representing himself." He said many times the bouncer will tell the guest with sagging pants to pull them up -- and then he can enter. Other times, Ratz said, people are told they can get in once they've changed clothes.
Ratz said in most cases he relies on the security staff to interpret the dress code. "It comes down to basically a judgment call on our head security guy, and it can be hard to explain to him how to make the decision," Ratz said. "Sometimes I'll go up to him and say, 'how did this guy get in,' or 'how did this guy not get in?' He has a hard job."
And in some cases, Ratz will cast the deciding vote if there's a controversy at the front door.
He said the dress code is not just about maintaing an image but about maintaining decorum inside. Ratz said over the years he's found that the people who get into fights tend to be the people who come dressed the shabbiest.
At EXO Ultra Lounge, the dress code is the same each night (unless there's a private function). Tammicka Logan, special events director for EXO, said the lounge wants guests to look "upscale and stylish." That means no athletic gear such as tennis shoes and baseball hats. Also on the do-not-wear list: casual jeans.
Baggy jeans are a problem, as Logan explained, "not because they are too big but because they are too casual." The same goes for oversized polo shirts or "other ill-fitting clothes," she said. "We look at the overall attire of a patron and not just focus on one thing. It's not based on race; it just depends on the outfit you have on."
Logan said many of the people who complain about the dress code are coming to the lounge for the first time or are from out of town. The best way for the lounge to avoid controversy?
"It's about consistency -- making sure that guests know what's expected," she said.
BEYOND THE BARS AND CLUBS
Stephen Eckelkamp, who says he was once turned away from a downtown restaurant because he wasn't wearing a suit with a shirt and tie, used to be part owner of a bar in St. Louis. It’s an owner’s prerogative to enforce a dress code, he says, though he doesn’t remember having such a code at his establishment.
"Every bar tries to set some type of style or atmosphere based on the clientele,” he said. “It’s about making your regulars comfortable. I can sympathize with kids who have traveled a long way, and it’s not easy to change clothes. But I tend to sympathize more with the owners.”
Cutz, the Wash U. student, said he agrees with Murayi that there’s nothing wrong in principle with dress codes. The problem is when they are not applied fairly.
“It’s a matter of how clearly a dress code is stated so it’s not a judgment call by a bouncer or manager,” Cutz said. “Having a dress code that makes sense for safety reasons (wearing close-toed shoes, for instance), people will understand. But when you get to dress codes that are more ambiguous in nature, that’s when you run into controversy.”
For his part, Murayi said he would prefer if all dress codes were posted. And he said he hopes that the Chicago incident will spur a conversation about the intentions of such policies. “There needs to be a discussion and understanding of what’s going into creating these dress codes,” he said.