How to dress for an art gallery viewing

By in Art And Culture, How To


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Whether you have been to hundreds of exhibition ‘private views’ down the years or have rarely set foot in a gallery previously, there’s no doubt that they can be intimidating events for many of us. There’s nothing like a gallery viewing, with only an apparently highly cliquey congregation of fellow visitors for company, for ramping up what may have been long-dormant social anxiety.

And it might be a daunting enough process for you to simply attend a gallery viewing, never mind pick an appropriate outfit for it, even if it’s your friend who is exhibiting, and you simply consider yourself as being there to support them.

So, what sartorial approach should you take to such a significant event? Below, I’ve set out some of the ground rules that will help you to strike the right note with your get-up on your next gallery visit.

Comply with the dress code…if there is one

black tie attire
Photo by iStock.com/Yuriy Kovtun

If you have been invited to a gallery opening, the dress requirement may be stated on the invitation. High-profile openings at major museums, for instance, may specify black tie, and as a general rule, the more exclusive the opening, the more upscale you can probably expect the dress code to be.

That might mean men simply opting for a dignified suit and tie, and women selecting that elegant silk slip dress or sequin dress they’ve been itching for an excuse to fish out of their closet. Regardless, the important thing is that if a dress code is stated on the invitation, you comply with it.

Remember that gallery openings are special occasions celebrating the hard work of the gallery and exhibiting artists. So, while turning up in a baggy shirt and torn jeans might not get you denied entry or thrown out, you are likely to feel self-consciously underdressed.

This is to say nothing of the lack of consideration and respect such a half-hearted approach might show to everyone who has made an effort to actually dress appropriately.

So, does that mean you can’t flaunt your creativity?

Reading so far, you might think this doesn’t sound like very much fun. Surely, the ‘respectful’ thing when attending an event in the notoriously offbeat art world would be to embrace your sartorial renegade — as Chuck Close does with his vibrant suits, and model-turned-gallerist Lisa Pomares does with her casually feminine style that is also all about fascinating contrasts?

private viewing how to dress
Photo by iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

You might have a point there. And of course, there’s a select group of contemporary cultural titans, such as the ever-ubiquitous Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who can perennially turn up to big art-world events in outfits that earn them places on ‘worst-dressed’ lists, with seemingly no adverse impact on their societal prestige.

If you’d like to embrace the same spirit at the next gallery opening you attend, I’d suggest taking some relatively ‘safe’ risks. You may, for example, carefully research the art that will be on display and choose an outfit that will mesh beautifully with it in photos. Or maybe you could adopt a monochrome look, in homage to the key figures in art history to have embraced the aesthetic in their works, ranging from Pablo Picasso and Yves Klein to Gerhard Richter and Bridget Riley.

What does all of this tell us about ‘appropriate’ gallery dress?

On the basis of the above, you might have come to the conclusion that there’s no particular formula for dressing well to any art gallery event, and that it really is (almost) a case of ‘anything goes’.

gallery attire
Photo by iStock.com/SeventyFour

However, I don’t think that’s quite true. There are always specific factors to consider that will largely dictate the outfit you go with, such as whether the event is low-key and local, or perhaps a galactically significant household-name museum opening at which journalist cameras will be relentlessly snapping away.

Oh, and of course, the timing of the viewing could also make a big difference. An opening on a midweek evening is much more likely to be one where many will be arriving directly from their ‘9-to-5’ jobs, so you might not wish to risk coming across as a ‘tryhard’ with an overwrought look. By contrast, Friday or Saturday night viewings will be infinitely more natural territory for those who really love to put effort into their dressing up.

In essence, though, your approach should probably be to acknowledge these contextual factors in your decision-making, while achieving a tasteful balance between being event-appropriate and still looking and feeling authentic.

Do your research into the gallery event in question, find a sound template for your look, and give it your own personal twist, within the boundaries of common decency. And if you do end up spectacularly failing to ‘read the room’ with your outfit choices, you can at least have the self-assurance of having been independent of mind. Or that’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

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