Remember when bagels were health food, fusion hadn't become shorthand for pan-ethnic unoriginality and we were all giddy with the possibility of cereal bars as meal replacements? The 1980s are long gone. So why are their bland, neutered waitstaff uniforms still with us?
Not that we're suggesting a return to the humiliating dirndls of yore (we have the Red Lion for that) or Emilio Pucci-designed pop-mod dresses and pillbox hats (if only). But somewhere between Hooters short-shorts and the standard black slacks, white shirt and black tie, it would be nice to see a waiter's uniform with a little panache.
Two new supper clubs, First & Hope and Tar Pit, have extended their edenic Jazz Era vibe to include the clothes their staff wear. In the process, they've raised the bar in the sedate world of waitstaff uniforms and demonstrated that sophisticated and functional are not mutually exclusive.
At Tar Pit, local designer Martin Zepeda created a sexy black sheath dress for female waitresses and bartenders. Hitting just-above-the knee, it features a deep but narrow U-neck with extended cap sleeves that bring out the dress's graceful silhouette.
At larger and more elaborate First and Hope, general manager Steve Scott Springer brought in Mad Men assistant costume designer Allison Leach. Working in a palette of gray and black, she designed four different dresses for the female waitstaff: a black wrap dress for bartenders, a knee-length charcoal dress for servers, a light silver baby doll dress for cocktail servers and a darker silver floor-length gown for hostesses. She also created two uniforms for the male waitstaff.
It's a credit to both designers that Zepeda's little black dress and all four of Leach's gowns look like they could be sold in a fancy department store. In fact, female patrons frequently ask the staff at both venues where they got their dresses.
“Jay [Perrin] wanted me to know his inspiration was the 1940s, when the glamour and silhouette of the woman was so simple and elegant,” Zepeda says. “He wanted something very simple.”
Creating dresses that would look as good on a size 0 as they would on a size 10 was a crucial consideration for both designers. Every house starts with a good foundation, and Leach is a woman who knows her way around a bullet bra and a full-body girdle. “That hourglass silhouette wasn't magic, and it certainly wasn't natural,” she says. To achieve some of the shaping and the support of classic foundation garments without their physical constraints, Leach chose fabrics with four-way stretch.
Aside from the black bartender dress, all the First & Hope dresses are made from a rayon-spandex combo. “It's halfway between a swimsuit and dance leggings,” Leach says. “At first, the girls didn't know if they could work in it. Then they put it on and said, 'Oh my god, it's so comfortable.' It really fits every shape beautifully, yet it's extremely moveable.”
Fabric was also a tough choice for Zepeda, who selected a blend of 75% polyester and 25% cotton. “The dress was cut on the bias, which gives it elasticity, and the bias cut adjusts to your body, so it's flattering on different figures,” Zepeda says.
Working on the bias, however, presented challenges. “The line of the fabric was hard for me to hide,” Zepeda explains. “Usually, there are darts that go in at the waist [to address] the excess fabric.” But Zepeda wanted this little black dress to have a clean line. “That's why you don't see darts anywhere else in this dress, because I put all of that into the neck.”
At First & Hope, each dress was designed to accommodate the demands of a particular job. “My forte and love is designing for dance,” Leach says. “So I'm always thinking: can they move their arm? Can they lift their leg?” (In her spare time, she's the designer for Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.)
The most stunning of the quartet, the floor-length one-shoulder hostess gown, includes a train — not any easy element to cope with in a busy restaurant. “The first thing that [the hostesses] do is greet you. Then they turn around and walk you to your table, so you see the fishtail train,” Leach says.
The flippy, flirty babydoll mini-dress worn by cocktail servers has a Vegas-y feel, but the sweetheart halter neckline and ruffled shrug make it more cigarette girl than Playboy bunny.
The knee-length dress worn by female servers is both an exquisite cocktail dress and a functional piece of work wear. It boasts a square neckline made more unique by tapered diagonal shoulder straps, strategically designed to cover bra straps. Leach also made an important concession but snazzy concession to practicality.
“I waited tables all through college, so I knew it was going to be impossible for them to do their job without an apron for a notepad and wine opener. It seemed a shame to add some type of pocket onto the dress, and an apron is such a marker of mid-century hospitality,” she says. She searched high and low for something that didn't feel like a castoff from Leave It To Beaver and ended up designing a bold, angular white apron with black trim and custom-sized pockets that precisely fit the servers' notepads.
Only the black wrap dress worn by bartenders, the simplest of Leach's four designs, breaks the gray and silver theme. Leach found that behind the bar, gray dresses didn't pop. Plus, black is a practical way to hide the inevitable spills that come with bartending. “There are very few female bartenders in town. We decided that because they are such strong individuals with such a high skill set, we're thinking about having each of them wear their own dress.”
Inspired by Gary Cooper and classic film images, the men's uniforms at First & Hope are less dramatic but still convey the vintage theme and showcase an attention to detail. For the dining room assistants and runners, Leach picked short, fitted white Eton jackets and black dress pants that sit at the natural waist. In a concession to modernity, they're flat-front pants. “We considered high-waisted pleated pants, but we didn't want it to look too costume-y,” she explains.
Bartenders and servers also wear black slacks, but instead of a jacket they have a crisp, button-down white shirt; a thin, narrowly striped white tie (custom-made by Wear Figs); French satin suspenders; and cuff links monogrammed with the black and silver First & Hope logo.
Little details — like the ubiquitous First & Hope logo that she incorporated into the uniforms including the three-strand graduated pearl necklace that sets off the square neck of the server dress — were Leach's passion and her specialty. With her playful approach, she brought the designs into the modern era.
“I'm obsessed with period-perfect detail when it's called for,” Leach says. “But the whole concept of the club is that it's a modern interpretation of the period.”