So there we were at the Dover terminal about to board our ship for a cruise up and into the west of Norway – lakes, glaciers, fjords – our heavy cases packed with warm clothing, woollen hats, quilted coats and thermal underwear. It was the end of April and we were going into the far north – and taking seriously the cruise organisers advice to wrap up warm. I’d been so determined to get everything into the cases that would make for survival that I forgot to pack much clothing for the formal dining on board. Ah well – let the other cruisers put on their folie bergere stuff. It was never something I subscribed to – apart from when I went first class on the QE2 (the freebie cruise to end all freebie cruises) and on that great ship the formal dining was every night – and that was genuinely stylish and glamorous.
In my heyday I did a lot of freebie cruises for various cruise companies (in the time before celebrities, when they wanted writers to do ad hoc travel writing presumably because they knew how to write) and luckily I never had enough money to have a ‘cruise wardrobe’ – whatever I wore for parties and posh dinners out on terra firma was what I took with me on a cruise. But a lot of women nowadays have special clothes reserved for cruising because a lot of people – especially older people, retired couples with a bit of money – choose to go cruising for their holidays – so these ‘special’ clothes get well used. Cruising feels safe and it is safe and you barely have to touch your toe into a different culture no matter where you are in the world – it’s faux travel. So – yes – life centres on the ship – and on standard cruise ships nowadays formal dining is a hoot – you see people – alas, yes, it is usually women – wearing the most extraordinary evening clothes on the basis that they’re living up to the literature about ‘formal dining’ and must wear things of a floaty, sparkly, pastel, flouncy style that bear no relation to their style in normal life and in which they – mostly – just look weird.
The days of the Great Liners provide a faint echo of the stylishness that went with first-class sea travel before air travel boomed and knocked it out. But nowadays the stylishness on a cruise ship is not natural. It is imposed. It feels false and it is false. None of us, off-ship, I hope, would be seen dead in half the outfits that are trotted out on these occasions. Women whom you have seen looking perfectly normal during the day in their sensible, suitable, normal day clothes, become transformed into unnatural beings some with a nod to Danny La Rue..
Formal dining nights are listed in the cruise literature so you can ‘prepare’ in advance – in a week away you’d probably do two – maybe three – and on those nights – obediently – out come those floaty, sparkly, pastel, flouncy outfits. You could think of it as a simple transference of a girl’s childhood delight in dressing up – it’s as if the ‘cruise wardrobe’ is the grown-up version of the dressing-up box – didn’t we love to put on our mother’s high heels and pretty skirts and weren’t we completely unware of how quaint we looked? The look of unease and self-consciousness (try wearing high heels and a long gown on a ship when the sea is a bit lively) is everywhere. But formal dining on a cruise ship is not the red carpet at Cannes. That is about women being dressed by couturiers – or expensively – very expensively – and women who are mainly used to being on show. Formal dining in the average cruise ship has become something of a style horror story. Dare I say it? It creates the very opposite of the thing it is trying to emulate – the long-gone days of elegance aboard ship when it was natural to dress for dinner (but only for the upper decks and the upper classes). Now it is, in the main, just a little vulgar and – well – sad. you may say that there is nothing wrong with being vulgar. And I agree – as long as you have intended to dress that way. But that’s not the game on a fine dining night on a cruise ship. The cruise company offers an evening of shipboard elegance and fine dining – what you get is something imposed and a little bit tawdry.
Do we women really need to be told when to dress up and when not to when we are on holiday? And if we do, do we need to have a special kind of dressing up box with stuff in it that has nothing to do with the women we are, most women are, in our day-to-day lives and which – in the main – apes couture but never is? I guess cruising women enjoy it but it never looks that way – if cruising women looked like they were taking it all with a pinch of salt, saying to the world – ‘Well, I know this looks a bit silly but it’s just a bit of fun’ then that would be one thing and M.Cheek might shut up – but it’s not seen as a bit of fun generally – it’s seen as utterly serious and – yes – required and competitive.
Back to the luggage and the warm clothing that we thought we needed and which filled our cabin wardrobes and drawers – (leaving very little room, anyway, for fine dining clothes) and off we sailed leaving a grey and cold Dover for what would probably be a very grey and very, very cold Bergen. But the God of Weather had other plans. While England basked in unseasonal cold and dismal conditions – we sailed into blue skies, warm sun – and – on our ship’s balcony – a chance to use the sun-loungers. The cruise was blessed and we delighted in it. Norway was warm. The lakes were warm, the beautiful glaciers were warm, the mighty fjords were warm. Unseasonally warm. Warmer than it had been in Spain one month previously. Not only was Norway warm but we came home with sun-tans. The thermals were never used. And such was the buzz about the weather in the dining room at night that I doubt anyone noticed the inadequacy of my fine dining garments.
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