Fake Your Way Through
Fake Your Way Through is a series of articles covering topics that some people are experts in and some of us…well…aren’t. Helpful hints and tips (as well as a glossary of terms) will be included to help navigate the sometimes rocky waters of social events and conversation.
One thing I love about Abilene is that it is a philanthropic town. The arts organizations are numerous and events are plentiful. It is also a town that loves to be social. Fundraisers or dances, Dyess Air Force Base ceremonies or festivals, this town likes to gather and dress for the occasion.
Even if you don’t frequent the arts and philanthropy circuit, your social life will likely involve events, weddings and parties requiring a specific manner of dress. Event organizers specify many different dress codes, and sometimes an invitation will arrive that leaves you wondering what to wear and what others will be wearing.
Jennifer Ellison, director of events for Abilene Christian University, has seven years of experience teaching etiquette classes.
“First and foremost, it’s basic etiquette to follow the requests of the host,” Ellison said. “If they’ve made it clear that the dress is ‘after five [semi formal or cocktail],’ guests should respect the wishes of the host.”
Ellison added that it isn’t just about being polite. “Attire can also influence the perception of you as an individual and affect overall impressions and judgments of your professionalism.”
Terry Stubbs, estate liquidation specialist and vintage and antique dealer, agrees and notes that in the case of an event hosted by an organization, “when you show up at an affair properly dressed, you are saying that you support them and respect the organization and their cause. If you show up dressed inappropriately, you’re sending exactly the opposite message.”
Stubbs, who has a wealth of knowledge on the local social scene as well as how to dress accordingly, said, “This is important to me because I am Southern. Southerners are genteel and love to dress. I like to dress, and most of my friends do; it’s just a part of etiquette, dressing appropriately.”
Typical Dress Codes
White Tie: White tie events are becoming few and far between. If you are fortunate enough to attend one, there are many stipulations, but here is the general idea: Women are to wear a long, full skirted gown and long gloves. (Gloves are not necessarily mandatory at every white tie, but if you choose to do so, be sure you brief yourself on glove etiquette, including no eating or drinking while wearing them.) Men wear a tuxedo jacket with tails, a white pique vest and white bow tie. Gloves are often customary as well as black formal shoes.
Black tie: For a black tie event, women should wear a formal dress (long, typically, but can be short or three-quarter length), evening heels or pumps, an evening bag (think satin, beaded, silk, velvet or brocade), and bring a wrap or fur. If the thought of having multiple gowns in your wardrobe is daunting, or you feel you won’t ever wear your purchase again, consider renting a gown from a company like renttherunway.com who offers high-end brands.
Men are expected to wear a tuxedo and bowtie with black lace up dress shoes in patent or smooth leather or paired with velvet slippers. While renting a dress may be gaining popularity among women, I suggest men owning a tuxedo versus renting, which is cost effective over time. Stubbs concurs: “Anyone who is social in Abilene and goes to fundraisers should own a tuxedo. We in Abilene need an excuse to dress up; why not bring out your best?”
Black tie optional (or Formal) means it can be a bit less formal than black tie and men can wear a dark suit if they don’t own a tuxedo (but a tuxedo is preferred).
Cocktail Attire (also Semi Formal): My personal favorite party dress code is cocktail because it feels glamourous with a lot of flexibility. Women can wear a dressy pant suit (or cocktail suit) short, more dressy dresses (think little black dress) in all sorts of silhouettes, and pair it with heels or more formal flats. Grab a clutch or small handbag, and sparkly jewelry or pearls.
Men are expected to wear a suit and tie and dress shoes.
Festive: Ladies, this is a time to bring out the fun and sparkles from your wardrobe, and for men, patterns, interesting ties and even a smoking jacket would be appropriate. Festive attire will usually be requested around holiday events and implies that the party is dressy.
Business: When an event states business, it typically means a suit and tie for men and a suit or dress suit for women. Women can also wear a nice blouse and trousers with heels, or a dress.
Business Casual: Men can wear khakis and a jacket, a collared shirt, loafers, oxfords or casual dress boots. A jacket is preferred, and a tie is not required. Women can wear sweater sets, khakis, a skirt, a button shirt and jacket; just think dressed up casual.
As you are: This indicates a casual gathering (but maybe not your baggy sweats).
I lost the invitation: Don’t fret if you lose the invitation. Ask a friend (whom you are certain is invited as well) or call the host.
I have no time: If you often find yourself with little to no time before an event that requires you look your best, the most efficient course of action is to plan ahead. Stubbs recommends that men should “always have a navy blazer, white shirt, and khakis ready to go. And if it’s even more formal, that’s why you should always own your own tux [clean, pressed and] ready to go.
For women he recommends a little black dress and heels which are “always appropriate.” I would chime in that skinny black trousers and pointy black heels have saved the day for me on more than one occasion (add jewelry and a silk blouse or top).
The invitation doesn’t state a dress code: If the invitation doesn’t advise you on what to wear, use context clues to determine what is appropriate. If the event is a meet-and-greet for a business group and takes place at 5 p.m. on a workday, work attire will be the norm. If the event is for families with children and takes place at the park on a Saturday morning, casual wear is more likely.
For weddings, check the time of day, whether the venue will be outside or inside, and if there will be a seated dinner and dancing late into the evening. Typically, if a wedding is held later in the evening, it will be dressier (unless specified otherwise). Many brides-to-be are leaving off a dress code unless they plan for it to be more formal. Luckily, most weddings now have a website with information on the formality and decor of the big day.
What to do when the dress code is specific yet a mystery:
Sometimes a stated dress code leaves you confused. If you find yourself confused by a thematic invitation stating “Marfa Chic” or “Casual Gatsby” attire, ask the host or head to Google to learn about what on earth it could possibly mean. Keep in mind that if the requested attire seems elusive or thematic, the host wants you to have fun with it and give it your best shot.
Choosing a dress code for your own party.
If you decide to host your own party or have graciously decided to chair an event for a nonprofit, consider choosing a theme of dress for your own fete. It can add some extra fun and dimension to your event, but follow a few guideliens when planning.
“Be clear about your expectations,” Ellison said. “If you truly want your guests to dress a certain way, list the attire on the invitation or whatever medium you’re using to invite guests. If you’re having a themed party, use descriptive words that make it easy for your guests to understand – like “black and white attire,” “casual Hawaiian,” or “classy Halloween costume.”
Always keep your guests in mind when planning the event to ensure a great time will be had by all. Consider the weather and time of year as well (a white tie event at 2 p.m. in Texas in August held outdoors will receive many complaints).
Learn Even More
Dressing appropriately helps one feel more confident. So does having an understanding of etiquette and manners. If you want to expand your knowledge in this arena, there are myriad options. A simple online search using terms including etiquette, protocol and manners will lead you to numerous online resources. The public library is also a great place to check out books on the matter.
As a preteen, I received a copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. I considered it to be a great gift; it covers matters of dress in addition to almost any other manners topic you can speak of. In fact, it was the first book in what has now become a small collection of etiquette books I own.
New editions have been released since then (to include mobile phone use and other topics not included in my older version), but it has kept its formal tone and historical references that are very interesting. If you wish to own a book for quick reference, I recommend Letitia Baldrige’s “New Manners for New Times” and Kate Spade’s three etiquette books on “Manners, Style, and Occasions.”
All in all, have fun with dressing up for an event and remember that the goal is to have a great time at the party!
*references and fact checking sources obtained from various etiquette books and websites including “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior,” Letitia Baldrige’s “New Manners for New Times,” theknot.com and gentlemansgazette.com