June 9, 2012

Style Etiquette: Formal Attire

Dressing for a wedding or other special event is always a little difficult, but it can be particularly stressful when you aren’t sure what style of dress is appropriate. Having already covered Black Tie, it’s time to move on to two terms that are a little more ambiguous – Formal and Semiformal Attire.

There was a time when ‘Formal Attire’ was about as simple as a dress code could be, with White Tie in the evening and Morning Dress during the day. Similarly, ‘Semi-formal’ implied Black Tie in the evening and a stroller, which is a variation of the morning suit, during the day. That was also the time when a lounge suit was considered an informal mode of dress. People would have been horrified if you showed up to a wedding in even the nicest of suits.

As the decades passed, society’s mores and sartorial constraints loosened and the accepted manner of dress became more and more relaxed, with probably the most drastic change occurring in the last five decades. With suits becoming a comparatively more formal item, and traditional formal dress being relegated to only the most elegant of events, the meanings of both ‘Formal Attire’ and ‘Semi-formal Attire’ have lost much of their clarity and are now all too frequently nothing more than catchall terms that basically mean the same thing.

In modern usage, when faced with a potentially formal event , it is important to take all aspects of the term into account when choosing the appropriate ensemble and, as usual, not be afraid to ask questions. The first clue will be the modifiers required, requested, preferred, and optional. Required means just what it implies, that the stated attire is a requirement for attendance. This is a very good time to practice asking questions. You don’t want to show up somewhere in a suit and be denied admittance because everyone else is in Black Tie. Personally, I always err on the side of overdressing both for events and in life.

Requested, preferred, and (to a slightly lesser extent) optional essentially mean the same thing when written on an invitation. The host wants and expects a particular mode of dress, but does not want to exclude guests who may not own traditional formal attire and leaves the final choice on what is appropriate to the guest. Remember, an impeccably cut suit is always a preferable choice to an ill-fitting rented tuxedo.

Other factors can be equally helpful in letting you know when a higher degree of formality is needed. Functions in the evening are inherently more formal than those that take place before six o’clock, as are those that will provide full-service seated meals.  If you are being asked for a choice of entrĂ©e, chances are you’ll be sitting down to a waiter-served dinner. However, no meal options does not mean you’re definitely getting a buffet or going hungry, so questions are still encouraged. If a location is extremely exclusive or upscale, there is a chance that they already have an accepted dress code readily available to anyone who asks, so that is another good avenue for investigation.

Once you have satisfactory assurances that you will not be expected to arrive in Black Tie, you are faced with what to actually wear. The answer will always revolve around a suit, with allowances made for things such as season, location, and time of day. Unless the implication is clearly in the traditional sense, for all intents and purposes, both formal and semi-formal can be interpreted to mean the same thing.

In warmer climates, particularly before sundown, a lighter colored linen or cotton suit is generally appropriate. The rule that it is not appropriate to wear white between Labor Day and Memorial Day, doesn’t really apply in the south since it is essentially summer year-round. Outside of that, stick to the rule, because you will look a little out of place wearing a white suit in November.

A dark suit will always be appropriate, but black is not the only option. A nice charcoal or navy is a perfectly acceptable substitute for most occasions. I personally like a three-piece suit, because it will help take your look to the next level without demanding attention. Your shirt should always be light in color, white being the most formal option, with either a spread or semi-spread collar. I recommend a shirt with French (or double) cuffs, especially if you are a little unsure as to the formality of the event, with simple cufflinks. This is a time when matching your metals is a good idea because it will help keep your ensemble looking clean and sophisticated.

I recommend wearing a necktie, especially if you opt for a waistcoat, in an understated pattern or muted solid. When in doubt, go with a solid black silk, but nothing too shiny. Your shoes should be well-polished balmorals, but bluchers are a good alternative assuming they aren’t too casual. Accessories depend on the level of formality, on an inverse sliding scale. The more formal the occasion is, the fewer accessories you should wear and the more classic they should be.

Anyone who has worn a French cuff shirt before knows that it is usually awkward to wear a watch. This is by design because when French cuffs first became popular, wristwatches did not exist. If one carried a timepiece, it was a pocket watch and likely primarily for adornment. The modern translation is that you should not need a watch when attending a formal event because, as a gentleman, you should be engaged and occupied for the duration of the evening (and, alternatively, your phone has a clock on it anyway).

When all is said and done, you will rarely be out of sorts in a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, and dress shoes. As I’ve said before, the best thing to do if you are unsure about what to wear is simply ask whoever is hosting the event. If they seem a little non-committal in their answer, add the knowledge gained from interpreting the clues and you can make an educated decision and look good doing it.

The only other piece of advice I’d offer for formal and semi-formal events, and weddings in particular, is that it is important to keep in mind that (unless it literally is) the event is not about you. Keep your choices classic and classy, and stay away from the loud and attention-grabbing. No matter how well you know someone, or how boisterous your personality is in life, when attending an event you are a guest and the focus should not be on you.

From here, things get even murkier when you get into the newer dress codes like cocktail and casual, but that is for the next Style Etiquette post.

As always, hit me up with any questions you may have about this or any other style issue.

Stay stylish,
- JJ

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