Does having a dress code for Discourses make us seem privileged?

Should we drop the request for Friday Evening Discourse attendees to be dressed smartly?

  • Dewar giving a Discourse in 1904

    Credit: Royal Institution

When discussing a recent Friday Evening Discourse (FED) by Stephen Curry on twitter, former Christmas Lecturer and all-round great guy, Mark Miodownik, implored us:

PLEASE PLEASE ditch black tie - it makes what you do seem privileged.

As Public Programme Manager, with responsibility for the Friday Evening Discourses, I felt compelled to jot down some thoughts on what they are, and if the dress code is relevant for a 21st Century organisation.

The Friday Evening Discourses were founded by Michael Faraday in 1825, as a means of raising some much needed income for the then cash-strapped organisation (some things never change). They proved an immediate success, due in large measure to Faraday providing so many of them, about a fifth in the period from 1825 until his last in 1862. In 1846 more than 1,000 people crammed into the theatre to hear him describe the magneto-optical effect, with contemporary journalists complaining about the difficulty of obtaining tickets.

From initially informal beginnings, their success led to formalisation in 1851, and with the building of the Lecturers' Corridor and Speakers' Room in the 1930s, they had become highly elaborate. Traditions, which continue to this day, include locking the speaker in a room before their talk, the procession into the theatre of Ri Trustees and the stipulation that a Discourse must start and end on the chime of the theatre clock.

The picture above shows James Dewar giving a Discourse in 1904, on his discovery of liquid hydrogen. The audience comprises the great and the good of the day, dressed impeccably in white tie, a step more formal than even black tie. During the 1940s, wartime austerity took hold, and the dress code was relaxed to black tie. However speakers still wore white tie until at least the 1960s.

Today, our current dress code states: 

FEDs are by tradition formal occasions, and while evening dress is not obligatory, it is customary. Smart dress is acceptable.

In reality, we will never turn a ticket holder away no matter what they are wearing, as we know it's not always possible to come dressed to the nines. However the FEDs are unique events in the history of science, and many speakers and attendees tell us they enjoy getting their smart clothes out of the wardrobe and adding to the special atmosphere of the Discourses. This is more than just a standard science lecture. After all, this is where Faraday announced the existence of the technology of photography in 1839 and J.J. Thomson announced the existence of the fundamental particle later called the electron in 1897. As Stephen Curry said:

The fact that I have given a Friday Evening Discourse at the Ri will warm the cockles of my heart for the rest of my days because there is now a thread though history that connects me to previous speakers, the likes of FaradayHuxleyRutherford and Hodgkin

However, the dress code at FEDs may cause a problem with how we are perceived. As Mark Miodownik argued, a formal dress code gives the impression that we are privileged, and could cause otherwise interested people not to attend. This may be the case, but in reality Discourses only make up 9 out of about 75 events I programme every year. We also run a huge number of events for schools, workshops for young people and have a nationwide network of Masterclasses, none of which require attendees to wear a bow tie. With the launch of the Ri Channel, viewers can even watch fantastic science films in their onesies!

So in conclusion, I am in two minds. I enjoy continuing the tradition of the greatest science lecture series in the world, and enjoy getting my dinner suit out of the wardrobe every month. The Faraday Theatre looks great packed with smartly dressed science fans, and it hasn't harmed our numbers. Average attendance at Discourses has doubled since I began working here in 2008. However, I can see why Mark and others feel that it perpetuates an image of privilege.

Having worked here for five years, I know the Ri is a welcoming friendly place, and the last thing we want is for people to be put off engaging with any of our fantastic activities. It doesn't matter about your background, qualifications or wardrobe - if you love science then we should be the place for you.

Please let me know if you think our Friday Evening Discourse dress code needs to go, or if you think to get rid of it would lessen the special atmosphere of Discourses.

Please comment below, tweet us @ri_science or email I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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