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What is Dressy Casual?
Plus, Urban Teens Bag the Baggy Look and the Must-Haves for Fall

By Retha Hill Staff
Tuesday, September 29, 1998

  Dress Me

    Elegant black dinner suit The opposite of dressy casual: An elegant black dinner suit can carry you from office to black-tie-optional events. Just change your jewelry, handbag and shoes before you go. (Illustration by Donald T. Early for
Q: I am a sales manager for an office-equipment distributor. My company is having a President's Club celebration at a resort in Napa Valley. The Award Ceremony is being held at a winery there, and calls for jacket and optional tie for men, and "dressy casual" for ladies. I would like for my husband to wear a black suit (and tie), and I have a simple black sleeveless dress that is floor length. Will this be too dressy for the occasion?

Sign Me No Name, California

What looks do you recommend for black-tie-optional events. I hate wearing dresses. I'm thinking about a tuxedo suit for women. What do you think?


A: Dear Cali and Becky
One way to tell that it is fall is the puzzled looks on the faces of invitees trying to figure out the proper attire to an assortment of functions. "Dressy casual," "business attire," "festive wear," "holiday chic," "casual resort" are terms that frequently inject a measure of confusion in what are otherwise delightful invitations.

Dressy casual, Post fashion columnist Robin Givhan says, is usually a polite way of saying no jeans. So a neat pair of khakis, a long wool skirt or a washed-silk pants suit would all safely fall under this category.

"Dressy casual means something short of what you would wear to a very serious business meeting," says Roberta Bernstein, spokeswoman for Neiman Marcus at Mazza Gallerie. "Frequently, the difference between dressy casual and business attire is the shoes and the jewelry."

In other words, a long skirt with heels would look fine at the office. The same skirt with flat shoes and a sweater would work as dressy casual. A floor-length, sleeveless black dress could work, but it depends on the material – velvet or silk is not casual – and the accessories – keep them simple.

"Dressy casual isn't fussy, it is not a time to wear scarves or lots of accessories unless it is an interesting piece," Bernstein says.

For men, a smart dressy casual look might be a nice pair of gabardine pants in black, gray or navy paired with a same color knit polo shirt for a lean monochromatic look. Freshly creased khakis with or without a sports jacket would also work.

There are many more choices when it comes to holiday chic or black tie optional. Because many functions in this town start immediately after work, the smart woman should have at least one outfit that can carry her from the boardroom, Senate chambers or news story conference to a cocktail reception – with perhaps a quick change of jewelry and handbag. A dinner suit in black is always a good investment. A tuxedo suit for women can look a little harsh or manly, however, a black dinner pant suit with a fabric tie belt or interesting buttons would add some drama.

Q: I saw a television report recently that sheriff's deputies in a Louisiana parish were charging men who wore low-riding pants that expose their underwear with indecent exposure. What's up with that?

Silver Spring

A: Dear Rakim
The ticketing is a misguided attempt by the sheriff's deputies to eradicate the super-baggy look so embraced by urban – and suburban – youth. The look took off in the early 1990s and kept getting more and more exaggerated until young men, and some young women, were wearing jeans so oversized they sagged off the hips and exposed designer underwear. The teen fashion industry responded by creating increasingly oversized pants, shirts and sweaters. Understandably, parents, teachers and employers hate the look. And so, too, do some people down in Louisiana who resorted to this tactic of giving young men a misdemeanor on their record in an effort to rid our streets of a bad fad.

The funny thing is, though, that the oversized, super baggy look is passe. Perhaps they haven't gotten word down in the Mississippi Delta, the back hills of Appalachia or "Showtime at the Apollo," but the baggy look faded more than a year ago! Urban youth have moved on. The young men who congregate at the mall are sporting clothes that are decidedly more fitted and much less likely to have prominent, outsized logos.

"The urban look takes its influence from music, videos and [concerts]," explains Candice Coombs, account executive for Creative Market for Exsto XXIV VII, a line of contemporary men's sportswear from BET Design Studio. "The big influence [from the artists] is [in] looking luxurious, having the expensive watch, car and diamonds. You want your clothes to reflect that. When you have clothes that are cleaned up, the logos aren't there, they know you are wearing expensive stuff."

Continuing a trend that began in late 1996, young men are shedding the big clothes for the slimmed down look of DKNY for men, Versace, Nautica and the more body-conscious Polo sportswear. A casual top nowadays will show a hint – just an outline, mind you – of broad shoulders and sinewy muscle, impossible with the outsized styles of yesteryear. Pants are still fuller than in the mid-1980s when the preppy look was in, but they no longer are worn to hang off the waist and mop the floor. Young ladies have embraced the fitted flared look and young men are dabbling in everything from fitted hard jeans to, gasp, dress pants.

Q: What are the must-haves for the fall season?


A: Dear Ellen
Of course it depends on how you live your life. A twentysomething producer at a high-tech firm where jeans are the accepted uniform does not need a wardrobe similar to an executive in the government or a private company. A housewife or teacher also might have different needs.

But – and with fashion writers, there is always a but – there are some staples you might want to stock up on. Fall presents the perfect time to assess your closet; give away the clothes that don't fit or no longer work. It is also a great time to figure out what you need to buy to turn clothes orphans – you know, the purple skirt that you got on sale but never found the right top for – into productive members of your wardrobe.

Start at the bottom. Do you have the essential footwear to carry you through what could be a wet fall and a snowy winter? If your Timberland boots have seen better days, get rid of them and use the opportunity to get some trendy, new lace-ups with a lug rubber sole that can work with leggings, pants or even long skirts. Last year's trend of knee-high boots that hug the calves are still showing strong in area department stores and are perfect to extend the wear of your minis even when the temperatures start to dip.

Because gray is the big color for fall, do you have shoes to match all those quicksilver suits you've been eyeing? The shoe designers have done such creative things with gray. There are gray flannel, high-heeled Mary Janes from Stuart Weitzman; pewter croco and suede high-heeled pumps from Bandolino; microfiber fabric-covered square-toes from Kenneth Cole, Jones New York and Nine West. No more are you stuck with those smoke-gray, smooth-leather 2 -inch-heel pumps that populated the shoe racks at Hecht's in the 1980s.

This is a good time to buy new stockings and tights in the latest fall colors – grays, of course, black, cranberry, loden, powder blue, eggplant and chocolate brown. They will keep your legs warm come November and extend the monochromatic look of your nice wool mini skirts.

If you go to many black-tie functions, you should seriously consider investing in an attractive stole – in velvet or hand-painted silk if you don't go in for fur. These are perfect over bare shoulders in drafty hotel ballrooms. You should also make sure you have one of the newer, dramatic long coats with a plush fur or fake-fur collar.

    Plush coats, with a fur or fake-fur trim Need a new coat? Many designers are pushing luxurious, fur-trimmed numbers for fall. (AP file photo)
For the average workday, look for a long skirt in a black, navy or gray that can be paired with a crisp shirt, cashmere V-neck sweater or shell-and-cardigan set. Flats or high heels can dress it up or dress it down.

Make sure you have cute hats to complement your coats and enough mufflers – in warm chenille or soft velvet – and leather or suede gloves to make it through a Washington winter in style. Check your umbrellas to see if they, too, survived last spring's El Nino rains. One to try is Tote's new compact umbrella with a flashlight built right into the handle. It will help you find the car-key hole during a dark and stormy night.

If you haven't bought jeans in a while, drop by any casual clothing store and check out the latest dark denim jeans. Levi's makes them hard, but the Gap, J. Crew, Diesel and the Limited are among the stores that have them dark but broken in. The stonewashed look is not completely out, but being pushed to the back burner by the fashion forward.

And, of course, make sure your leggings are up to snuff. Do not, repeat, do not walk out of the house wearing saggy, snaggy or faded leggings. Even the nicest cable sweater can't compensate for over-laundered, linty leggings.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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