Miss Manners: Formal Dress 101: A seminar for men

December 18, 2011

In the interest of a pleasant New Year’s Eve, free of bickering about dress codes, Miss Manners will now hold a Formal Dress Clinic for Gentlemen.

Hosts have done everything they can to create confusion. They waffle (“black tie invited,” ‘’black tie optional,” “black tie preferred”), or they make up their own terms (“festive attire,” “country club attire”) that baffle their guests.

In the sane modern world, if there is such a thing, formal evening clothes are specified on invitations as either “black tie” (black dinner jacket with black satin or grosgrain lapels, pants with stripe down the sides matching the lapels, pleated white shirt, black bow tie) or “white tie” (black tailcoat with satin lapels, pants with a stripe on the outside legs, white pique waistcoat, starched white linen shirt, white pique bow tie).

Hosts sympathetic with an inability to comply need not advertise this, as it should be assumed that dressing one degree down — black tie for white, a black business suit for black tie — would not attract violent attention from a bouncer.

Q: I saw a burgundy velvet smoking jacket that was so beautiful that I bought it on the spot, but I am not sure when to wear it. On the store mannequin, the smoking jacket seemed to have replaced a dinner jacket and was worn with a formal shirt and black tie. On what occasion would one wear a smoking jacket these days? I do not smoke.

A: Fortunately, that is not a requirement. However, you are required to keep the jacket at home. What probably confused the store mannequin is that “smoking” is the term Europeans use for black tie. They will stop at nothing to confuse us innocent Americans.

Q: We will be attending a formal wedding party. My wife said since it is formal, I need to wear shoes with shoelaces. I prefer slip-ons. Is my wife correct?

A: No, you may wear slip-on shoes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they must be black patent leather.

Q: My husband and I went to a black-tie event, and he wore his suspenders without a cummerbund. Is that correct?

A: The suspenders are not only correct, but crucial, as belts are not worn with evening clothes. He could have correctly dispensed with the cummerbund had he worn a black waistcoat.

Q: Is it appropriate to wear a white bow tie for an evening wedding ceremony with a tuxedo that does not have tails?

A: Tuxedo is the slangy term for black tie. And black tie means that you wear a tie that is black.

Q: What is the proper attire for a silver-tie event?

A: That is not in the lexicon, but here’s a wild guess: Your hosts want to send the gentlemen scrambling to find silver bow ties.

Q: I am attending an event, the invitation for which states “evening attire.” Is a navy blazer and slacks appropriate attire for a man at such an event?

A: No, that’s brunch attire.

Q: I received a wedding invitation that stated “black tie.” Neighbors who received it say that “black tie” means only to dress up (suits for men, nice dress slacks and tops for women), not formal — that if it were formal it would have said “black tie formal.”

A: No, black tie means black tie; they don’t have to state it twice to mean it.

Q: I received an invitation for a formal business dinner function stating “formal, head table: black tie.” What is the difference?

A: There isn’t any. The add-ons are to say, “You’re sitting at the head table, so wear black tie — OR ELSE.”

Q: For a formal holiday occasion, is it acceptable to wear a colored or patterned bow tie and matching cummerbund in place of black?

A: There are those who believe that gentlemen require little touches of red, plaid or worse to look festive. Miss Manners does not. She thinks of this as the sartorial equivalent of the red convertible — a symbolic shout of “Whoopee!” before anything jolly has had a chance to happen.

Q: I see more and more people wearing the craziest- looking evening clothes: tuxedos with a black button instead of a black bow tie, black four-in-hand ties (which the servants should wear) instead of black bow ties, white bow ties or four-in-hand ties and white vests with tuxedos (the white bow ties and vests belong with tailcoats), colored “tuxedos,” etc.

It is fine for people to wear whatever costume they want to a costume ball, but to think they can put any interpretation they want on “black tie” is out of bounds. The whole idea of evening clothes is to give formality to an event to signify its importance, so it strikes me as a sacrilege to don a costume and pass that off as complying with the required dress code.

A: We call that Academy Award attire. It is unrelated to proper dress.

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

2011, by Judith Martin

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