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► Ladies' Formal Attire
With generic dress codes such as semi-formal
or formal, a man's choice of suit or tuxedo is often determined
by the formality of the women's dresses which varies by local
Conversely, the explicit Black
Tie and White Tie dress codes require the women to match the
formality of the men's attire. For more information see
Ladies' Evening Wear.
"Don't Change" / "Unchanged"
Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and
Modern Manners describes this unique British evening dress
code as follows:
used to mean come as you are, but in a day when men where
probably wearing suits and women the equivalent
. . Nowadays the term, unless
the hosts say differently, means not black tie.
Thus men should turn up in suits or jackets and trousers
with a formal shirt, cuff links and a tie.
Women wear presentable day clothes.”
Contemporary Evening Dress Codes
The myriad of modern dress
codes such as Dressy Casual, Festive Attire or
Cocktail Attire are
beyond the realm of this Guide as they are highly arbitrary and
do not pertain to formal wear.
Formal Dress Codes
At the turn of the twentieth
century dress codes were rigid and extensive protocols that
prescribed specific attire for every conceivable social and leisure
activity and tolerated little deviation. One hundred years later we have rid ourselves of such
excessive constraints only to discover that along with the
proverbial Edwardian bathwater we have also thrown out some very
A major drawback of
discarding dress standards is clearly spelled out by Britain's
authoritative etiquette guide Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and
Indecision about what to
wear is one of the most visible manifestations of contemporary
social confusion and insecurity. The elevation of comfort above all other considerations, the
flawed belief that informality equals conviviality, and downright
laziness have resulted in a contradictory and illogical dress sense.
It is therefore ironic that
the appearance of the Black Tie dress code on an invitation causes
panic in so many men. Unfamiliar with the concept, they
view the looming event as an intimidating test of sartorial skills
which they know are sadly lacking. No wonder style and etiquette advisors frequently begin
their instruction to men with a reminder that the Black Tie “test”
comes with a complete set of answers guaranteed to ensure top grades
to any student that follows them. As Men’s Wardrobe so succinctly
puts it: “Black tie is your friend, not your enemy.”
Sense of Occasion
In addition to providing
clarity and self-confidence, prescribed attire also helps to
generate a sense of occasion. Combined with a specific code of conduct it fashions a social
ritual that elevates one type of happening above another. Fine restaurants may go to great lengths to provide a more elegant atmosphere than a local pub, for example, but if their
customers import typical pub clothing and behavior then these
establishments are robbed of much of their special character. Unfortunately this fact is increasingly evident in today’s
world as the once noble quest to end aristocratic snobbery manifests
itself in a growing culture of democratic slobbery.
Act of Consideration
Just as a host or hostess
can show consideration towards guests by providing clear dress
guidelines, so does a guest return the favor by being mature enough
to honor them. As Debrett's
author John Morgan so eloquently points out “by being seen to make
an effort you are paying your host or hostess a great compliment, as
well as making yourself look your most attractive. After all, the short time required for getting yourself
dressed is negligible compared with the hours the hostess might have
put in preparing the party.” This is particularly true for formal dress codes where
ignoring the prescribed etiquette will make it clear that you could
not care less about the desires of your host or the experience of
your fellow guests.
Evening Dress Codes
(D)evolution of Formal
“Formal” is defined as
maintaining a form or tradition and so formal wear is distinctive
for preserving sartorial customs of previous times. Although it evolves with changing fashions
evening wear deliberately
remains a step or two behind them in a process much like a
slow-motion ripple effect. When a new standard in daywear splashes onto the sartorial
scene the previous norm is pushed out to the realm of
formal evening wear which in turn
drives prior evening garb to the outer circles of
very formal dress and ultimately
consigns the previous occupant of
to the fashion history books.
Formal, Semiformal and Informal
While there once was a
near-universal consensus of what defined “formal” clothing, the
concept has become highly subjective in today’s world.
During Victorian and Edwardian times the term applied to
virtually any evening that included mixed company and such occasions
demanded men be attired in full dress; dinner jackets were considered distinctly “informal” and were
confined to stag affairs. After the First World War standards were relaxed and formal
was redefined as occasions of prestige and ceremony while the
honorific “semi-formal” was applied to the tuxedo which had replaced
the tailcoat as de facto evening wear.
World War II prompted a
further loosening of social mores including the acceptance of the
common suit at typical evening affairs and the consequent elevation
of the dinner jacket to special occasion attire. While some communities maintained the pre-war dress codes,
other segments of society that rarely wore tailcoats began to
classify the tuxedo as formal and the suit as semi-formal. This new interpretation became increasingly popular during
the 1960s and 1970s when the arrival of such casual garments as the
leisure suit and turtleneck as acceptable day
wear bumped the regular suit further up the
dress code ladder which in turn promoted the tuxedo’s formality
and all but guaranteed the redundancy of the tailcoat.
Today, when it is not
uncommon for men to wear T-shirts to the office and sandals to the
theater, the concept of formal is even more ambiguous and can mean
anything from a tuxedo to a dark suit to a black shirt with designer
jeans. A casualty of
individualism’s triumph over communalism, traditional dress codes
are now largely redundant outside of
weddings, one of
the last bastions of middle-class formal ritual.
(For complete details of how the codes are
interpreted in this context
see Formal Evening
Formal Gray Areas:
Overdress or Underdress?
Clearly, interpreting dress
codes today is far more complicated than it was in years past. As
A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up explains, the best solution
for uncertain guests is to seek clarification:
If a gentleman has any
doubts as to what he should wear to a wedding – or any other
ceremonial occasion, no matter how formal or informal, - he feels
free to contact his host or hostess, simply asking “what do you
think most of the fellows there will be wearing?” He does not content himself with asking uninformed friends,
“Well, Jack, what do YOU think I ought to do?”
When such clarification is
not possible, experts are divided on whether to risk being
underdressed or overdressed. One school of thought includes the authors of
A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up who feel that “the former may be
interpreted as a simple misunderstanding [while] the latter suggests
In the opposing camp are pundits such Sir Hardy Amies,
a British authority on menswear, who
pointed out it that is
easier for an overdressed man to relax his manner (and his tie) than
it would be for an underdressed man to change his clothes. “Correct
dressing is only another form of good manners,” he wrote, “and good
manners are only another form of mental comfort.”
However, the social stakes
are much higher with formalwear due to its highly specialized
nature. No matter how
noble your intentions, you will very likely be perceived as
pretentious if your tuxedo turns out to be the only one in the room.
(If you deliberately choose to put
yourself in this position – or
if you dress in white tie for a black tie event – that perception
will be quite justified.)
Ultimately, though, there is
absolutely no reason for the confusing gray areas caused by
ambiguous traditional dress codes. Thoughtful hosts can
instead use alternative codes that state their intentions in black
"White Tie", "Black Tie"
As the interpretation of
"informal" became progressively more subjective in the
second half of the twentieth century, hosts increasingly turned to
codes that literally spell out the required attire.
At the dressiest end of the
scale, the appearance of White Tie (or Evening Dress in the UK) on
an invitation announced that male guests are required to wear a
tailcoat with the appropriate accoutrements while the ladies were
expected to wear ball gowns.
Black Tie (or Dinner Jackets in the UK) declared that traditional tuxedos and evening gowns were
required. For the least formal evening
affairs, Business Attire (or Lounge Suit or Don’t Change in the
UK) allowed guests to attend in conservative suits.
"Black Tie" Variations
three-tier system worked perfectly for decades until declining dress
standards introduced a slew of ambiguous deviations.
The advent of “business
casual” in the 1990s muddied the universal concept of business
attire and hosts of informal parties consequently grasped for more
descriptive alternatives forcing their guests to decipher such vague
codes as Dressy Casual or Cocktail Attire. Similarly, the 1970s reinvention of formal attire led to a
number of confusing variations of the Black Tie theme that were
counterintuitive to the dress code’s role as a tool for
clarity and uniformity. The following page defines these variations and, more
importantly, explains why they are to be avoided.
Dress codes eliminate guessing games for
guests at social events such as this wedding reception.
Cruise ship "formal nights" exemplify how prescribed
dress elevates an
considered "formal" prior to the 1950s.
By the 1970s "formal"
included jumpsuits like this and tuxedos made of denim, a fabric designed
for manual labor.
A rate White Tie invitation.
Note that this one does not follow
standard invitation protocol - the dress code
is placed in the
left corner instead of the right.