Magazine article Insight on the News

Those Dress Code Blues

Magazine article Insight on the News

Those Dress Code Blues

Article excerpt

Black tie, creative Mack tie, no tie or `kitchen wear'? Ill-defined

Etiquette is out in Washington, judging by the much-publicized rancor between Republicans and Democrats. The fact is, while Congress toils over the meaning of "impeachable offense," lesser mortals struggle to understand equally cryptic phrases that increasingly appear on party invitations: "semiformal," "informal," "creative black tie" "festive dress" "smart casual" and "dressy casual."

Most social swimmers know "black tie" means "tuxedo required" but for women, the issue is more complex. Does a black-tie invitation require a woman to buy a long gown, or can she get away with a fashionable cocktail dress or maybe even fancy trousers?

Rules are rules, says etiquette maven Letitia Baldrige, whether written or not: Hosts should make sure guests know what is expected. One embassy official recently asked her if "black tie optional" was appropriate for an invitation. "Absolutely not!" Baldrige responded. "People who come in evening clothes feel like stuffed penguins, and people in business attire feel underdressed. It's a recipe for making people feel miserable."

Continues Baldrige, "`Creative black tie' drives me up the wall. People aren't supposed to be desperately seeking answers to find out what it means. We're not a masquerade society going out for Halloween. I suppose it means a man could wear a polka-dot tie."

Washington's Arena Stage, for example, requested patrons to wear creative black tie for the opening night of its production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Few seemed to take the words seriously. Even Molly D. Smith, the theater's new artistic director, appeared in a black silk pantsuit and boots. Creative or predictable?

Pauline Innis, coauthor of Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage, isn't opposed to creative dress modes. She recalls her own response to a "Date With the Devil" gala benefit for the Washington Opera. "The invitation read `black tie' and underneath, `red or black for ladies'" she says. "I had a rather wicked-looking dress with long points and a slit that went up to the side, and I wore red fishnet stockings and red shoes. I felt beautifully devilish."

But a benefit gala given by the James Renwick Alliance, a classy crafts emporium, pushed creativity to its limit -- at least in the nation's capital. Guests were requested to appear in black tie or "an ensemble reminiscent of a favorite room in your home. …

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