Rebecca Tobin
Rebecca Tobin

Cruising has come a long way since I covered the industry as Travel Weekly's cruise editor in the early- to mid-2000s, and one of the most obvious changes starts in my suitcase.

I currently have my luggage open on my bedroom floor and my closet ajar. I'm gearing up for a Mediterranean cruise, courtesy of Celebrity Cruises. I'm not sure what I'm going to pack.

And I laugh at myself, because almost exactly 20 years ago, I was gearing up for a Mediterranean cruise, courtesy of Celebrity. And I knew exactly what I was going to wear every night.

On cruises of yore, the rules were more or less set. To remind myself of those earlier days, I pull a book on Greece cruising (that I helped to edit) off the shelf and read the section on dinner dress. "The daily bulletin delivered to your cabin each day will advise you of the proper dress code for the evening," it reads. "Formal means a tux or dark suit with tie for men, and cocktail dress, long dress, gown or dressy pantsuit for women .... Check your cruise documents to determine the number of formal nights .... Men who don't own a tuxedo might be able to rent one in advance ...."

If I remember correctly, on that Celebrity cruise, there were at least two, likely three formal nights. My husband wore a suit.

This time around, I can't even convince him to bring a sports jacket.

And really there's no need. The three-tiered suggestion of formal/informal/casual attire on most big ships has been retired from general practice, along with the cigar bar, the Internet cafe and the midnight buffet. When I was the cruise editor, I had half a closet dedicated to dresses in varying levels of formality. Now, I have some sundresses, plus one fun, frothy dress I bought at T.J. Maxx because I was going on vacation. (As time has marched on, so has my waistline, and most of those old gowns no longer fit.)

The formal night had many, many devotees, myself included. I remember coming out of my cabin on one Holland America Line ship to find all the passengers, who had been lolling around in T-shirts and cargo shorts just a few hours before, now dressed to the nines and elegant as they could be. Many men were in tuxes and women in floor-length gowns. The act of dressing up had animated everyone, and at the bars and in the restaurant the drinks flowed, the laughter sounded, the eyes (and jewels) sparkled. On formal nights, maybe people splashed out for that extra bottle of pricey wine. On formal nights, the photographers were busy. On formal nights, some people booked the "alternative" restaurant.

But its card was marked even then, as lines like Norwegian Cruise Line (and to a lesser extent, yacht-like ships like SeaDream) were dismantling the formal structure, making it optional. And people just wanted to be more casual on vacation in general. The trend was helped by ship design, because ships got bigger and dining venues more varied, enabling more cruisers to dress in different ways to suit the occasion and not just be relegated to room service or the Lido on formal nights. Throughout the decade, the formal/semiformal/casual dress code was a thing -- until it wasn't.

Now lines do cruise casual, cruise elegant, smart casual, chic or dressy, and most lines leave it up to the individual to dress along their comfort level. Holland America has Gala Nights, and the FAQ even explains the terminology. "To many the 'formal' term was misleading, as it implies a specific type of dress ... 'Gala' still implies festive or dressy without misleading guests to bring attire the majority of guests don't wear."

A few lines still do adhere to a more traditional dress code. On formal nights on Silversea, men can dress "informal" if they desire, but jackets are required in the public spaces. Deep in its FAQs, Royal Caribbean says it still does three levels of dress code (casual, smart casual and formal), but it says that the right look varies by venue, suggesting that the days of ordering room service to avoid a formal night are long gone. Cunard has a Gala Evening twice on its seven-day cruises; but even then, it says, "It's your choice to participate in these evenings or not."

But I think the magic of doffing the beach wear and donning a fresh outfit is still there. Celebrity is still encouraging guests to dress up twice on my cruise, and anyone who still wants to go full-on tuxedo can do so. My experience is that guests still do enjoy those evenings and go to some lengths to get fancy. It's just that the emphasis is now on the cruiser's choice. Which brings me back to my suitcase.

I'm sure my new dress and I will take a stroll on the promenade. After all, many cruisers have another motivation to dress up and pose: Instagram. But that's another Insight.

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