- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

Q:You recently wrote about what first-time guests should know before attending an embassy function, but made no mention of dress codes. I have heard that some Americans underdress when the invitation specifies “business attire” and that “black tie” definitely does not mean anything short for the ladies. Can you clarify this?

A: First of all, take care to remember it is a measure of respect for your host and his country to dress appropriately for any embassy event, whether it be a small dinner, a large national-day celebration or one of the many “embassy-sponsored” social affairs for local arts and charitable organizations. This is important because you likely will be assessed — both as an individual and as an American citizen — by your appearance as much as your deportment.

The invitation should specify the type of dress required: black tie, cocktail attire, business/informal or casual. If no mention of attire is indicated, it is assumed the event is informal. Important: If you are confused for any reason, by all means call the embassy and ask the social secretary (or someone in the ambassador’s office). They will be happy to answer your questions.

Let’s deal with what a gentleman needs to know first.

“Black tie” means a dinner jacket, commonly known as a tuxedo, with appropriate accessories: shoes, formal shirt with studs, bow tie, cummerbund or vest, etc.

“Informal” or “Cocktail attire” requires a dark evening suit (navy blue, gray or black), dressy shirt (generally but not necessarily white, often with French cuffs and discreet cuff links) and perhaps a more raffish tie than would be worn to the office.

“Business attire” can be a dark or light suit with a conservative shirt and tie — definitely not a sports jacket and trousers.

The term “casual” is unusual on embassy invitations, unless it is an out-of-doors summer event, or the guest is so closely acquainted with the ambassador that he is invited “en famille,” as one of the family.

It is important to note that “casual” in an embassy context does not have the same connotation as for most other private events. I learned this to my chagrin some years back when I arrived at a blazing hot Fourth of July picnic on the roof of the Canadian Embassy in shorts and a polo shirt.

I realized my faux pas the moment I saw the ambassadorial host — resplendent in an elegant brass-buttoned navy blazer, slacks and open shirt (no tie being his one concession to “casual”). In other words, a blazer or sports jacket will suffice, and it doesn’t hurt to wear a tie, either — you can always take it off.

Sheikha Rima Al-Sabah, the wife of the ambassador of Kuwait and one of Washington’s most prominent diplomatic hostesses, was kind to share her thoughts on attire for the ladies:

“It is important that all of my guests feel at ease in our home. I want them to relax and enjoy themselves as much as possible, and I know that may be difficult when someone feels over- or underdressed the minute they walk through the door.

“Black tie at an embassy function calls for ladies to wear a long dress or very fancy ankle- or midi-length dress. If it is backless or somewhat decollete, some sort of an evening wrap is advisable, especially in winter or if the air conditioning gets too cold. Silk or silk/satin evening trousers with very dressy tops are also acceptable.

“Cocktail/Informal means an elegant dress, skirt and top or pants ensemble — something that may be too fancy, let’s say, for a daytime lunch. One nice accessory is enough.

“For ‘Business attire’: Again, a dress or suit, but perhaps a more tailored look.”

Casual: “For a small dinner among friends in our home, I would expect a woman to wear something flattering but comfortable.”

Address your questions on etiquette and protocol to Kevin Chaffee, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002 or send e-mail to civilities@ washingtontimes.com.

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