A guide to the modern do’s and don’ts of proper attire.
The Occasion: A Wedding
Old etiquette: Don’t wear white or black or red.
New etiquette: Black and red are perfectly fine, but white is still the ultimate wedding no-no.
What to wear: Let the invitation, the season, and the hour be your guides. (If you’re at a loss and you’re close to the bride, ask her what’s right; otherwise, consult the maid of honor or the bride’s mother.)
“For day weddings, which tend to be more casual, steer clear of anything heavily beaded or sequined,” says Lauren A. Rothman, founder of Style Auteur, a fashion-consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. Instead, opt for a knee-length dress in a material like cotton; in warmer weather or regions, strapless styles and open-toed shoes get the nod of approval. “Simple hats” also earn a thumbs-up, says Amy Lindquist, head of Lindquist Fashion & Image Consulting, in Minneapolis. If the ceremony is in the afternoon and the reception in the evening and the invitation doesn’t specify dress, assume the event is semiformal, which calls for a cocktail dress or an evening suit in a color that won’t upstage the bride. “Pale pink is OK―hot pink is not,” says Lindquist.
Black tie once meant floor-length gowns. Now, at all but the grandest affairs, dresses as short as knee-length are acceptable, provided they have a semiformal or formal cut and fabric; silk or a silk blend, for instance, would be appropriate. As for wearing a strapless or sleeveless dress in a house of worship, some have strict rules about covering up; check the protocol beforehand or bring a wrap.
Should you be invited to the rehearsal dinner, “they vary greatly in formality, so note where it’s being held,” says Lizzie Post, an etiquette authority, an author, and a spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute. In general, “cocktail-party rules apply,” Joseph Williamson, a fashion stylist in New York City. “Save your better outfit for the big day, but wear something dressy to the dinner. A dress and a jacket or a cardigan with some sparkle would be nice. But keep it understated.” Remember―there’s only one shining star at matrimonial shindigs, and it’s not you.
The Occasion: A Cocktail Party
Old etiquette: No surprise here―a cocktail dress.
New etiquette: Cocktail dresses are always in style, but you have other options.
What to wear: These days, a cocktail party can be anything from a swanky society affair―cue that glittery knee-length number from the “special occasions” department―to a low-key group of friends gathered around a platter of crudités. But for the most part, “cocktail parties are dressy-casual, so you can’t go wrong if you wear a top with some special details and a skirt or tailored pants, plus heels or fancy flats,” says Williamson. “Avoid fabrics that are too casual, like chino, jersey, and denim.”
A fitted cashmere or fine-gauge merino-wool top with a knee-length satin skirt, heels, earrings, and an armful of stacked bangles is just right, he says. Sue Fox, an etiquette authority based in Paso Robles, California, and the author of Etiquette for Dummies ($22, amazon.com), also suggests a pantsuit, provided it doesn’t look too corporate. (Under the jacket, wear a silky camisole or some other feminine top with an evening vibe.) Keep in mind that different cities have their own dress codes, says Rothman: “Cocktail attire in Miami is just as dressy and chic as in New York, regardless of the weather differences, while in San Diego it’s interpreted a bit more casually, because the city is relaxed.”
How to Dress for Any Occasion
The Occasion: A Dinner Party
Old etiquette: A little black dress and heels.
New etiquette: Gauge your outfit by the party.
What to wear: Given the number of variables (what time of year is it? who are your hosts? is it a special occasion?), there’s no one right answer, which can make things a bit tricky. If you underdress, you risk offending your dinner companions. Overdress by a mile and “you can make your host feel inadequate, insecure, or uncomfortable,” etiquette authority Sue Fox points out. The solution: “Ask the host for advice,” says fashion consultant Lauren A. Rothman. It’s the best way to find out if you’re in for a denim-welcome get-together or a more buttoned-up, skirt-and-blouse affair. Still worried about hitting the mark? “Stash dangly earrings or a pretty scarf in your bag to dress up an outfit if need be,” advises etiquette authority Lizzie Post.
The Occasion: A Business Dinner or a Company Party
Old etiquette: Your nine-to-five wear puts in some overtime.
New etiquette: Keep things professional (you’re still working) but in line with the event.
What to wear: When you’re dressing for a work function, the culture of your office should prevail. “If it’s a conservative environment, dress conservatively for events, too,” says fashion stylist Joseph Williamson. But no matter how relaxed your office environment or the occasion (that means you, company picnic!), never wear anything provocative. “A too-revealing outfit can prevent you from being taken seriously when it comes to job promotions,” warns Fox. And, yes, that includes the “sexy cat” costume you’ve been eyeing for the annual Halloween bash.
For business dinners, office wear is appropriate (provided your workplace isn’t overly casual): trousers with a refined sweater or a blouse and blazer. If you’re going to a work party straight from the office, try a sheath or a wrap dress in a dark shade, or “wear a suit and bring along a feminine blouse and evening-appropriate shoes, like in a metallic shade,” suggests Leah Ingram, an etiquette authority and the founder of giftsandetiquette.com, based in New Hope, Pennsylvania. “Or you could simply swap your jewelry for something a little bolder―a chunky necklace instead of pearls.” As for that company picnic, choose knee-length shorts and a short-sleeve top, or a sundress with sandals―nothing ripped, frayed, or strapless.
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