Formal dress, or ohmigosh what the hell am I wearing?

I’m moving ahead in the schedule of outfits to talk a little bit about dressing up all fancy-like.

Last weekend, Matt’s brother got married, and it was a super special time. Matt was a best man, and I greeted guests as they arrived at the church. The dress code stated on the invitation read “Black tie optional; formal wear recommended”.

But… black tie is semi-formal, and formal is white tie, so… wait, what’s the dress code for this wedding? What am I doing? What am I wearing?!

This confusion is absolutely no personal dig at the bride and groom, whom I love like my own family. It’s just that weddings often bring out a lot of style turmoil, because our ideas of formal wear have changed a lot over the years, and many of our images of formal bring back memories of the senior prom.

I was brought up thinking (like many of us, probably) that black tie was super fancy. “Oooooh, you were invited to a black tie affair?” we would coo, thinking of tuxedos and opera gloves and people with unusually long titles and lordships. At 17, in an all-girls high school in Philadelphia, I was convinced that my senior prom was the epitome of formal wear.

Aw. How cute was that?

In actuality, the tuxedo was styled as a less formal option for men, for events that are not white-tie but still more formal than business suits, and would never be appropriate for an event before 6 p.m.

For situations like this, I’ve adopted the term American formal when trying try describe the way most of us dress for evening weddings and receptions, as opposed to the code of dress mandated by standards of etiquette. American formal, to me, means ladies wearing lovely cocktail dresses, and men donning their best suits.

While I have a tendency to get a little nit-picky over use of formal attire terms, I have no issues with people’s interpretations of these terms. I would never give someone crap about wearing a tuxedo to an afternoon wedding (especially if he is the groom!), same as I would never give anyone a hard time about their dark suit in the evening. The photo above shows my suave and handsome father, dressed in his best suit with a gold tie. Who cares if it’s not a black-tie outfit? He looks very sharp indeed. (Seriously, my dad knows how to put together a snazzy suit.)

A lot of the etiquette rules I’ve found go into great length about men’s clothing. Ladies’ dresses, on the other hand, can get even more confusing. I tend to lump dresses into broad categories, like ball gown, or evening dress. Get some people into a conversation about cocktail dresses, and see what kind of styles come up! For both white and black tie, opera gloves should be worn, and the length is based on the sleeve—the rule I know is, the shorter the dress sleeve, the longer the glove. While white-tie affairs call for the most formal dress for ladies, which includes a ball gown and a tiara, evening gowns can be worn to black-tie events. In recent years, cocktail dresses have also been deemed appropriate.

My own dress for this wedding was not formal; it was a below-the-knee cocktail dress. However, I choose the style and the accessories based on the reception time (6:30 p.m.) and the level of formality of the event. I was fairly certain that the bride would be the only one wearing a ball gown, and as the bride, shouldn’t she stand out as one of the most radiant people in attendance? (The other being the groom, of course.)

The photo above shows my outfit for a daytime, backyard, summer wedding; while the shape and length of the dress is consistent with the one I wore last weekend, the style and colors were suited for a more casual event. The event hosts took this into consideration when sending out the invitations, which (to my absolute delight!) read “Also there will be dogs there and dogs don’t care what you’re wearing.”

My main point here is that I do my best to look appropriate for the occasion. I wouldn’t wear jeans to a funeral (although goodness knows, I’ve seen that done too many times!) and I wouldn’t wear a cocktail dress to a rock concert. Sally at Already Pretty has some great advice on dealing with dressing for emotionally significant events, and her post on sartorial slippery slopes includes a section on “extreme casual attire at traditionally dressy affairs”.

One piece of wisdom learned from my mother is to dress up for something if unsure about the dress code. I would much rather be the only one in a dress than to show up in shorts and sneakers when everyone else is wearing heels! And, if all else fails, and when you are really in doubt, ask your host! They won’t bite your head off for inquiring.

I have no hard and fast rules. The best advice I have for you is to be comfortable, dress your best, and most importantly, adopt your own style. No one should ever be under any obligation to follow all the old rules about gendered clothing, and my preferences for a outwardly-facing and traditionally femme (“classic lady-like”) appearance may not float your boat.

Above all else, be confident. Trust your style and let no one tell you you don’t look hot. Trust me, you do.

Now, to finish, the outfitblogging portion of the post!

Dress: Dress Barn Outlet (winter 2012)
Hat: Poppycock Vintage, Etsy (winter 2012)
Earrings, necklace, bracelet: Vintage 360, Etsy (winter 2012)
Petticoat, not visible: Domino Dollhouse (winter 2012)
Shoes, not visible: Life Stride, DSW (winter 2012)
Wrap: “borrowed” from my friend A.G. (fall 2009, and I should really get that back to her one day)

All photos credited to my brother Andrew, except the summer wedding (photo by Pebbles)

References: The Black Tie Guide is written for men’s clothing, but has a lot of good information on history, etiquette, and fashion. Wikipedia, as always, describes the different types of Western dress codes, with links to both men’s and women’s attire.

One thought on “Formal dress, or ohmigosh what the hell am I wearing?

  1. Mia says:

    First off, I love both the outfits you’re showing here–you look great! I mean, you always look great, but you gussy up nice too. :) (Plus, THEM HATS.) I’ve been to all of two weddings since graduating from high school and both times I was a bit confused as to how to do myself up; one was a Vegas wedding so the pressure wasn’t so high, but I definitely worried about being underdressed for the other wedding (wearing a strapless sundress and a cardigan and high-heeled sandals). Fancy events are so difficult, and I appreciate your talking about it a bit! I would really enjoy rocking some menswear at a wedding, next time I go to one where I’m not in the wedding party…

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