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Other Stuff to Know - 8
Dressing For Formal Occasions
Formal occasions are those events where you are expected to dress in a specific manner. With few exceptions, you will receive a printed invitation to attend such an event on which the required dress is specified, usually on the lower right-hand side of the invitation. The invitation will have the term “RSVP” on it, which means you have to advise the host or hostess in a timely manner whether or not you are able to attend.
Here are the ground rules on what to wear for formal occasions:
  • If you are invited to a function with an invitation that states “formal dress” that takes place before 6 p.m., men should wear dark suits with a tie and women short cocktail dresses or conservative pant suits. If the event takes place after 6 p.m. and the invitation states ”formal dress” or “black tie”, then the attire for women does not change. In this case, however, men should always wear a formal tuxedo outfit (also called a “dinner jacket”) even if they have to rent one.
  • Dinner jacket or tuxedo outfits for men consist of a black or midnight-blue formal suit having a single front-button on the jacket, peaked or pointed satin or silk lapels and a similar satin or silk stripe down the outside seam of the pant legs. With the formal jacket and matching pants, men should wear a white formal shirt with either a regular or winged-collar and French cuffs, a black silk bow tie, a matching silk cummerbund or vest, and simple black slip-on shoes, preferably in patent leather. Select discreet-looking, matching studs (to button the front) and small cufflinks for your shirt.
  • Men’s formal pants can be pleated or have flat fronts but are always uncuffed. They also never have belt loops, so you need conservative-looking suspenders (preferably solid-colored white or black) to hold your pants up. Socks must always be plain black, preferably silk. While you can purchase or rent a pre-tied formal bow tie, learn how to tie one yourself.
  • For women, a simple elegant black dress is always an excellent choice for any “formal dress” event. So is a black or white fashionable pantsuit. Other sophisticated-looking dresses may also be suitable, depending on their styling, cut and fabric.
  • Some men try to get creative with the vests and bow ties they wear to formal events but I do not recommend doing so. Show some flair and individuality with your choice of silk foulard or pocket square for the breast pocket of your jacket or by wearing a small red rose or carnation in the buttonhole of your lapel. In the summertime, you can change your look by wearing a white formal dinner jacket, keeping everything else the same as if you were wearing a black dinner jacket except you have to wear a black cummerbund as opposed to any type of formal vest.
  • Events requiring formal attire are not the time for men to try to be flamboyant or run the risk of looking tacky. Avoid long ties, long jackets, dark shirts or any other kind of trendy formal attire for men, regardless of what any celebrities happen to be wearing at the moment. Stick to the simple, sophisticated, classic Cary Grant or James Bond look and let the women be the stars fashionwise.
  • If you receive an invitation that says the dress is “black tie optional”, this does not mean anything goes. To be safe, men are always better off to ignore the word “optional” and wear formal attire as opposed to a business suit. For women, this signifies the affair is just slightly less dressy than a regular “black tie” event.
  • Invitations for the most formal type of event, like state dinners, will say “white tie”. These events are primarily for high government officials and diplomats, and require men to wear long black formal tailcoats, white wing-collared shirts, white bow ties and white vests. Women are expected to wear long ball gowns, sometimes with long white gloves that are worn when dancing but are taken off when women sit down. Bracelets are worn over the gloves and rings are worn underneath them. When women are going through a receiving line at the start of the event, they should remove the glove on their right hand to shake hands with the people they are meeting.
When you attend a wedding, the clothes you wear depend on the level of formality of the wedding, the time it takes place, and where it is being held. This is definitely a situation in which you need to consult with either the bride or groom, or better yet, one of the parents of the bride beforehand. One hard rule, however, is women guests should not dress for a wedding in a manner that upstages the bride. This generally includes not wearing a white dress. A second rule is you need to give a wedding present if you have been invited to a wedding regardless of whether you attend. Wedding gifts should usually be given to the bride.
If you are in any doubt about what to wear to a particular social event, you are always best advised to call the host or event organizers to clarify how you are expected to dress. If this is not possible, I recommend that you err on the side of dressing more formally than too casually.
Let Steele know if you have any questions about the Citizen of the World Guides or your life and career.

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