13 December 2007

Helping you crack the cryptic dress-code

My girlfriend E recently received a wedding invitation that clearly stated where the ceremony would take place, clearly stated at what time the reception would begin and clearly stated to what address all in-lieu-of-one's-presence presents should be shipped.

But then, there at the very bottom were four of the most inane words ever put to raised script:

Attire: Black-tie optional

"Optional?" I asked, "What do they mean, optional?"

"I dunno, but that's what it says."

"What are your friends wearing?"

"I don't have any friends going to this wedding, it's a family thing."

"Optional, as in optional optional?"

"I don't kn..."

"Give the bride a call, ask her what the hell she meant."

"I can't, I don't know her that well -- do you think I have to wear a long dress? I don't really own any long..."

"It's ridiculous! If they want a black-tie wedding, why not just write 'black-tie' on the invitation? If they want a semi-formal wedding, write 'semi-formal.' If they want a free-for-all, don't even bring it up. But why, of all the confusing things they could do to their guests, throw 'optional' on at the end?"

"Yeah, like I said, I don't get it. That's why I'm asking you."

"Well, I think you have to go black-tie. Always better to err on the side of being too dressed up."

"Really? But I don't think I own anything black-tie-ish...actually, I don't even really know what 'black-tie' means, do you?"

The answer to that question coming later today (probably tonight), along with my interpretation of what is most appropriate for a young professional woman to wear in attendance at white-tie, formal, semi-formal, business-casual and informal events.

And for no other reason than to remind the public at large of just how important age-appropriate dress is (not to mention the idiocy of pairing a mini dress with thigh-high boots in mid-December), here's mini-Pringle-can Panettiere and her 47 year old Madame Mother shopping in New York City last weekend:


Anonymous said...

I'd be scratching my head at "optional", too.

That pic of Mama and Daughter P = eek. Hopefully their relationship is healthier than that of the Lohan's.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I think having a black-tie wedding is one of the worst things you can do to your guests.

karri said...

Hayden and her mom - gross. Seriously, gross.

I've never even heard of white-tie. Is that when you're required to wear elbow length gloves or something? Also gross.

Teek (still not Jo) said...

Optional can mean everything from "wear it if you got it" to "the bride really wants everyone in a tux but is too nice/cowardly/confused to demand it." Most of the girls will still wear cocktail dresses unless the guest list is accustomed to attending true black tie events.

As for HP: her mom should definitely consider opaque stockings, gaining 10 pounds, and burning that hideous coat, but I think this is my favorite celeb look with thigh high boots. I mean, way better than J. Lo the sailor man. Still, they're an impossible piece.

N said...

Just wow. They both look trashy. I don't understand the stockingless, peep-toe-heel-wearing women I keep seeing. It's December. Step away from the peep toes.

Anonymous said...

Just fyi, black tie is semi-formal. Formal would be white tie and tails.

We almost put black tie encouraged on our invites but decided against it. I really wanted it black tie, my wife didn't care so much, and neither of us wanted our guests to be forced into buying (or renting, ugh) something new.


Anonymous said...

Black tie is less formal than white tie, but it is not what most people consider "semi-formal."

etcetera said...

OMGZ!!! OMGZZ!!! it's like christmas! i'm so excited you're doing this post, j. i look forward to lots of scrumptious options. (long and short? affordable?) this will be such a treat after i finish my International Trade exam! wheeeeee!! smooches.

Anonymous said...

Black tie is less formal than white tie, but it is not what most people consider "semi-formal."

Most people are wrong. That's no reason to endorse it.


Anonymous said...

I'm not saying most people *should* be right, but for the masses who don't know the textbook definitions, I think it's an important post for Jo to write.

My Fortune 100 company's holiday party is on a Saturday night at a very swank hotel and the invitation says, "semi-formal". Last year under the same dress code direction, not a single man wore a tux - all suits and sportcoats. Like I said, the misuse of the term doesn't make it right, but it is the world we live in.

holiday said...

The only words I hate more than "black tie optional" are "festive chic". What is that supposed to mean? I'm supposed to wear a holiday sweater.

I agree that black tie optional means that the host simply couldn't make up their mind. It's either black tie or it's not. When optional, you have this bizarre mix of suits, formal wear and tuxes.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested what Jo has to say about this.

rdhd - perhaps black tie can be defined as semi-formal, but only when you consider semi-formal a tuxedo.

59th and Lex said...

I once had the horrifying experience of meeting Hayden and mom. It was 7 years ago though, when Hayden was a wee one and mom was a pageant-mom pushing Hayden to do whatever movie / soap opera etc. came her way. Funny you would post this because I just told a friend last night all about how it takes a "special" person to push their kids into showbiz. Your analysis is dead on. Not sure if she's Dina Lohan but she loves the Hollywood lifestyle, plastic surgery, star-fucking crap.

I've been reading this blog for a long time and I think you are rubbing off on me, so thanks for that!

I like Johanna's haricut said...

I am more horrified that the invitation specifically stated where to send a gift. That's almost as bad as having a cash bar at the reception (which I have seen before, the shame).

Noelle said...

I'm curious to know what Johanna thinks of Hayden's outfit - I think she looks really cute, albeit a bit cold.

Not a fashion queen said...

Consult Emily Post if you want the true etiquette guru opinion on what each occasion means as far as attire.


Also realize that in this situation it is a wedding, and probably NOT a wedding that will be splashed in soceity rags. Most brides are prima-donnas who are given too much power. Wear a nice cocktail dress and pass the champagne.

ay said...

black-tie = formal, with tux.
white-tie= more formal, tails, and white ties.

black tie optional = bride and groom want a formal wedding and want people to wear tuxes if they have them, but aren't going to make people get tuxes if they don't and would be fine with a dark suit.

as for the ladies, something nice and fancy, but not necessarily a full length gown. I wore a carmen marc valvo knee length number to the last black tie wedding I went to, and def was not out of place. It also depends on the guest list, if they're all going long, you might as well go long, but with a black tie optional invite, you can go cocktail and be appropriate. Just look nice and put together.

Angelina said...

If black tie is optional, treat it that way. Wear a dress you're in love with. No need to drop hundreds of dollars on an evening gown, unless you want to. A fun, demure cocktail dress will do.

Dave said...

As Emily Post says "Black Tie" is tuxes. That's formal. Semi-formal is suit and tie. "Black Tie Optional" is just weird. That means some people will come in tuxes while others will come in suits. If half the people are wearing tuxes and you're wearing a suit you feel like you look stupid and underdressed. Mixing and matching styles is just dumb.

Johanna said...


I love Hayden's look from the upper-thigh up, but I must say, as impractical as I am, I can't understand wearing a mini dress in the middle of the day with no tights. Substituting boots as tights, to me, looks trashy.

Maybe it's that I've seen "Pretty Woman" too many times, but I can not disassociate that type of boot from the opening scene.

You know, when Julia was getting ready to hit Hollywoood Blvd. to trade sex for money?


I'm so intrigued that you've actually bumped into this hot mess of a Mother-daughter team a few years ago! Where? What were they doing? What were they wearing? Was Hayden as much of a marionette as she seems to be now?

not a fashion queen (and others)-

I'm not trying to say that I'm any kind of etiquette authority (hardly), but I do know from the volume of "is this okay to wear to a black-tie event?" e-mails I've received in the past month, that women in this city do trust my judgment on this matter. Thus, I'm trying my hand at it.

In the follow-up (to come tonight), I'll tell you how *I* have navigated the confusing waters of the dress-codes dilemma and then offer a few suggestions as to what's out there if you're in the market to buy a new party outfit.

In the end, I'm just really glad everyone agrees with me that tagging on "optional" or "encouraged" to the end of a dress-code is a ridiculous and unnecessary practice.


glammy said...

I'm with you on the thigh high boots. There is no way to make those work in a classy way, especially when you're 4'10 or whatever tiny height she is.

59th and Lex said...

J - I'll email you.

brown bear '02 said...

I understand and agree somewhat with rdhd's point, but I think (s)he needs to understand that the most important thing is not that everyone recognize the correct terminology but that people show up dressing in the way the party host intended. If an invitation says semi-formal, but you know the event will be cocktail, showing up in a tux just to prove you know the right definition is silly.

brown rowergirl said...

In 5 years Hayden will be the next Jennifer Love Hewitt. Bad tv show, c-list celeb, huge can and even more annoying.

I had no idea black-tie was semiformal, btw, but now I'm totally going to use other people's ignorance to my advantage from now on and show up in a super fancy dress (probably with heavy beading and no back) when I know everyone else will be in pantsuits and work dresses.

ataraxia said...

Is Hayden's hair really that cool?

I thought the teased/pulled-back/smooth-over pony/exotic bird crown was pretty much last year...

Anonymous said...

Brown bear '02,

Thank you for informing me of what I "need to know." How kind of you. I actually agree with you 100% that when it's all boiled down, the most important thing is for everyone to know what to wear.

But that's why it's important to get our terminology right. Technically speaking, black tie (or a tuxedo if you wish) is semi-formal. Tails and white tail are formal. A suit is just that. J, in her recounting the conversation, differentiated between semi-formal and black tie. I was responding to that. Not any advice she gave otherwise.

And I would personally turn to Alan Flusser for this, not Emily Post. If EP, like Dave above, says that black tie/tux is formal, she is wrong. End of story. So while, the invitation itself may be a matter of etiquette, the defintions of these words is not.


Teek (still not Jo) said...

I agree with rdhd that the most important thing is wearing the correct outfit. However, showing up in an inappropriate outfit isn't going to teach the hostess a vocabulary lesson.

Particularly considering that "semi-formal" has been evolving it's own definition, particularly in the US, for at least 50 years. It's not traditional because this designation didn't exist pre-WWII. The "semi-formal" hostess expecting suits and cocktail dresses would have been unclear and improper 60 years ago, but is not now. Semi-formal is a lot nicer sounding than "Something between a tux and business casual, please", if a bit colloquial.

Controlling language evolution is an impossible task, and that's what this conversation has devolved into.

not a fashion queen said...


did you even read the linked site???? She goes into great detail as to what each means. Not once does she state that semiformal means tux. (see below)

White Tie - Men
Black tailcoat, matching trousers with a single stripe of satin or braid in the US; two stripes in Europe or the UK
white piqué wing-collared shirt with stiff front
white vest
white bow tie
white or gray gloves
black patent shoes and black dress socks

White Tie - Women
Formal (floor length) evening gown

Black Tie - Men
Black tuxedo jacket and matching trousers
formal (piqué or pleated front) white shirt
black bow tie (silk, shiny satin or twill)
black cummerbund to match tie, or a vest
dressy suspenders to ensure a good fit (optional)
black patent shoes and black dress socks
no gloves.
In summer or on a cruise: white dinner jacket, black tuxedo trousers plus other black tie wardrobe.

Black Tie - Women
Formal (floor length) evening gown or short, dressy cocktail dress

Black Tie Optional - Men
Either a tuxedo (see 'Black Tie' above) or
dark suit, white shirt and conservative tie

Black Tie Optional - Women
Formal (floor length) evening gown or
short, dressy cocktail dress or
dressy separates

Dark, business suit (usually worsted wool)
matching vest (optional)
white shirt
conservative tie
dressy leather shoes and dress (dark) socks

Short afternoon or cocktail dress or
long dressy skirt and top

Anonymous said...

Emily Post died in 1960, and it is the Emily Post Institute that publishes the information pasted by Not a Fashion Queen.

Mrs. Post's original book (1st edition) described male attire that is not generally used today (e.g., the frock coat, the riding suit). It did not, however, include black-tie optional.

The reason for the tuxedo suit being semi-formal is due to its being a relaxation in form for the dress tails (white tie). I guess except for maybe heads of state and diplomats most people could consider Black Tie to be formal.

Nothing wrong with Black Tie optional, which permits people of meager resources attend an event they could not if the designation were not possible. It shows some sensibility and understanding of the reality that most men do not own a tuxedo and that renting one is expensive. To quote Mrs. Post "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

Anonymous said...

I think she wears the thigh highs well. The cashmere/wool coat with the clean ponytail offsets the boots a little.

Anonymous said...

Traditionally, a tuxedo was something men only wore in the company of other men--in a club setting. The only acceptable formal attire in mixed company was tails in the evening or a morning suit. In fact, my very proper Victorian-inspired mother would not allow my bridal party to wear a tuxedo--she considered it unseemly.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:46:

Please tell me you're kidding.

Anonymous said...

Who cares if her outfit or hair is necessarily "in style"? She obviously likes it, and it DOES look cute. I'm sure all of you are so fashion forward and are currently wearing exactly what is all the rage and top dollar designer right now! Haha. I think there is something to be said about looking "age appropriate". This outfit is definitely suited for a 20-something. She does, however, look great in my opinion. Maybe she has been to Japan recently (I was just there) this style is all the rage there, everyone is wearing the thigh high boots and mini dresses/coats. Everyone there looks nice and put together, not trashy. I think we should take into consideration that people saying she looks trashy may be "older", and or not able to pull off this kind of look themselves.

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