Summer is coming soon, and with it the ubiquitous summer wedding invitations. As society gets less formal, preparing for events such as weddings and galas is becoming more stressful and difficult to interpret. I have a wedding coming up at the end of the summer, and though the invitation itself has not yet arrived, it got me thinking about the ins and outs of preparing to attend. Even if you are lucky enough to get an invitation that lists a dress code, it can still be a bit ambiguous, especially when the words ‘preferred’, ‘requested’, and ‘optional’ start getting thrown around.
Since many previously formal occasions are now being overrun with business causal attire, there is no longer a clearly defined correlation between dress code and attire. With a little common sense and a few basic guidelines, you can pretty safely maneuver even the most convoluted of invitations. These days, there are only a few dress codes that you will see listed on a formal event invitation (with the option of modifiers): Black Tie, Formal Attire, Semiformal, Cocktail Attire, and Casual.
Black Tie is probably the easiest to figure out and is one of the most formal styles of dress. Traditionally, it implies a tuxedo (or dinner dress) and will rarely occur before 7pm. The standard tuxedo consists of a few basic pieces with a few options to suit your taste. The dinner jacket is a wool, usually black, short jacket with satin (or increasingly common grosgrain) lapels. Lapels (in increasing level of formality) can be either notched, peak, or shawl. Whatever material the lapel is, there should be a matching stripe down the outseam of the pants (which should always be black, regardless of the color of the jacket).
When it comes to formal shirts, there are really only two choices: pleated or plain front, and always white. Within that, there are several further choices such as the number and width of pleats, wing or straight collar, and buttons or studs. A bowtie is the standard, and the only option if you are wearing a wing collar. Alternately, you could choose a black necktie, but only if you are wearing a waistcoat. The shirt should always have French cuffs, which is why formal shirt studs usually come with matching cufflinks (though personally I prefer to coordinate, but not match them). Keep in mind that there is a very big difference between the standard white dress shirt and a formal shirt and the two are not interchangeable.
Over the shirt, you should always wear either a waistcoat or cummerbund, traditionally matching the lapels. Shoes should either be patent or highly polished black leather balmorals. With black tie, your socks should always be thin, black dress socks.
An even more formal variation of black tie is white tie. This has almost completely fallen out of usage except for the most prestigious of occasions such as state dinners. It follows the rules of black tie but substitutes the dinner jacket for a tailcoat and the black waistcoat for a white one. If you are ever invited to a white tie event, I recommend a visit to the most reputable menswear shop you can find because it is probably a big deal.
If the last time you had occasion to wear a tuxedo was your high school prom, there are two avenues that you can pursue: buy or rent. Buying is the best option if you anticipate a future of black tie events and benefit galas. A tuxedo is an investment piece that, when paired with a good tailor, can serve you a lifetime. If you don’t want to or can’t afford to purchase, you could potentially rent. The problem with rentals is that they will rarely fit you properly and are usually not very good quality or well taken care of.
If you are thinking of renting, my advice is to pursue a third option. A well-made, impeccably fit black suit is almost always a preferable choice. Stick to all the other de rigueur of black tie, opting for the waistcoat, and you will be much better off than in an ill-fitting rented tux. Plus, a great black suit will be useful to you a lot more often than a tuxedo, so if you don’t already own one, it’s a lot easier to rationalize the expense.
When it comes to deciphering the difference between black tie preferred, requested, required, and optional it is actually pretty simple. If ‘Black Tie’ is on the invitation, regardless of what follows it, the host expects black tie. The modifiers are primarily a courtesy to leave open the opportunity (or not) for their guests who may not own the appropriate formal wear.
Finally, if no dress code is listed you can put together a few clues and come to an informed decision as to whether black tie is appropriate. Take a look at the invitation. If it is made of a heavy stock, with very formal language, and engraved text it is a good assumption that black tie might be appropriate. Another clue is if the event is in the evening and the following reception will be held at a very upscale country club or event space.
If you are still unsure, you can always ask the host. Don’t take the advice of other attendees who may have made their own assumptions. Go straight to the source. It will usually be appreciated and well received. From personal experience, the host would rather take the time to answer a question than have a guest arrive underdressed.
There is spirited debate on the matter, but I always err on the side of being overdressed. Not only is it awkward for the host (whether or not they let on), but arriving underdressed often puts you in an uncomfortable situation and you always want to put your best foot forward.
Next up for Style Etiquette, I’ll cover the ambiguity that is Formal Attire.