- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005

What exactly does “black-tie optional” mean? I see this on so many invitations. Is it letting men off the hook if they don’t have or don’t want to wear a tux or can’t fit into their old one? Should women wear cocktail dresses, long gowns or what? And what does “national dress” mean?

A. “Black-tie optional” is a regrettable development based on the correct assumption that many prospective guests do not wish to take the time and effort to dress properly to attend a formal event. Those who plan such affairs, which almost always are fundraisers, are in a quandary. They want to maintain a sartorial correctness that corresponds with the presence of prominent guests, fine food and wines, music and floral arrangements. However, they also want their event to be a financial success and understand that compromise is necessary to ensure a full house.

There are several problems. First, there are too many black-tie events these days. They don’t seem all that special anymore, and people don’t necessarily feel like dressing up to attend them. It used to be that a dinner jacket for men and long dresses for ladies would be worn only to the most important seated dinners, balls, dinner dances and the like.

Now, with the proliferation of benefits, tribute nights, political committee banquets, etc., a certain resistance has developed, especially among men, who don’t much care to don black-tie while still at the office or leave work early to go home and change. Organizers, however, want to encourage them to attend as well as the more fusty types who don’t mind dressing up.

The result is black-tie optional, with the inevitable result that a significant portion of the guests are going to feel uncomfortable because they are either underdressed or overdressed, whatever the case may be. Most men, for example, don’t feel like wearing black-tie to mill about in a vast hall with a thousand other guests, especially when the majority of the other men doing so are waiters. It’s a lot easier for women, who have a wider range of choices available to bridge the gap — long, short or midi-length dresses, for example, or fancy or less fancy evening suits.



My own preference is always to opt for business attire when I see “black-tie optional” on an invitation — under the premise that if the hosts don’t care if I dress formally, why should I?

About “national dress”: This designation usually is seen on invitations to large State Department and embassy receptions or multicultural events where guests are encouraged to wear attire associated with their native lands: Indian saris and Nehru-style jackets, the lovely long silk dresses called au dais for Vietnamese ladies, African tribal robes and headdresses, and the like. It is always a marvelous sight to see these richly colorful and diverse costumes on display on the relatively few occasions they are worn.

Note: Americans shouldn’t take this too seriously as far as they are concerned. That means leave the cowboy hat and boots at home — even if you’re from Texas.

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@washington- times.com.

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