The invitation said “black tie optional” awards gala. It was a business event – the highlight of a summertime multi-day conference with hours to get glammed up built into the schedule. I envisioned dapper dudes in tuxedos and fashionable women in sparkly cocktail attire, kind of like the fancy dress night on a cruise. What was surprising among the colorful parade of dress-up clothes, however, was how many people interpreted “black tie optional” as anything goes with good taste optional.
Some of the deviations from traditional black-tie wear were appropriate ethnic attire for the multi-cultural crowd, but other deviations showed embarrassingly poor taste. While some looked ready for a night on the town, some were dressed in tight minis appropriate for Las Vegas nightclubs. Others looked like they belonged in Night Court.
“Black Tie Optional” definitions
Most etiquette books and fashion magazines define “black tie optional” as (for men) a tuxedo accompanied by a black silk bow tie. or a dark dressy suit (black or navy) with a single-colored or subtle-patterned tie. For women, long ball gowns, cocktail dresses or dressy evening separates are appropriate. (Silk, satin and/or sequins make a simple outfit that might be cut the same as an everyday cotton casual one look upscale and appropriate.) Shoes should be suitably dressy. Skin is appropriate for women (décolletage, slit dresses, minis) within reason and good taste.
Ethnic Formal Wear
It is important to realize that tuxedos and cocktail attire is formal wear in some countries and cultures. In today’s multi-cultural world, events often specify that ethnic formal options are appropriate. For example, the Hawaii state ball at Obama’s Presidential Inauguration specified Hawaiian formal garb, such as Holoku gowns and aloha-print ties, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Ethnic formal wear varies from Japanese kimonos to Chinese cheongsam. The event I attended included several people from India in exquisite silk saris or colorful salwar kameez, colorful Africans in evening ensembles ranging from dashikis to Senegalese bubus with matching head scarfs, and Sikhs in colorful Dastar turbans, many choosing to dress up their heads with finer fabrics and colors that matched their shirts. All the ethnic attire displayed at the gala was made in fancier fabrics than would be worn every day in keeping with the formal evening.
What Not to Wear
Most people did dress appropriately, but it was sad to see how many did not equate black tie optional with using good taste. There were men in khaki cargo pants and T-shirts that would not even qualify as “business casual.” Really, a cotton Hawaiian shirt and shorts as formal wear? There were women in flip-flops (not fancy sandals–cheap drugstore flip-flops). Nearly all the women did wear dresses, but some looked like cotton beach cover-ups. Also, some fancy outfits were too skimpy and too slutty for a business event … unless they planned to earn money on the streets afterwards.
Another observation that night is that women with tattoos need to consider how they look when choosing formal wear. There were women with tattoos that seemed incongruous and jarring with their elegant ball gown. Tasteful tattoos would be fitting accessories, but some heavily inked women chose to wear dresses that neither displayed nor covered their inked skin.
Advice for Future
If you are attending a “black tie optional” event, remember it is not an invitation to dress “taste optional.” One cannot go wrong with elegant formal wear or a dressy outfit in one’s culture. But, if you are not sure, check what is appropriate with the host, organization holding the event, or people who have attended before. This event was an annual gala and at least half of the people had attended prior ones. I have no doubt which half they were in the room.
By Dyanne Weiss