If you're confused about what to wear to an event, you're not alone. Most of the really strange formalities have passed away along with the Age of the Debutante, but there are still a few gradations of formal dress you should be aware of.
White Tie - An invitation to a White Tie event is very rare, unless you know some diplomats. For a White Tie event, men should wear a white bow tie, white waistcoat, and black jacket with tails. Women should wear an elegant floor-length evening gown, gloves, and jewelry. Historically “Formal” meant White Tie, but nowadays Formal generally refers to Black Tie.
Black Tie - For women, this would have historically required a long dress, but today a short dress or evening suit may do. For men, this means tuxedo. A tuxedo should be worn with a tuxedo shirt with matching studs and cufflinks, a bowtie (preferably hand-tied), patent leather shoes, and either a cummerbund or a waistcoat (never both). If you wear a cummerbund, it should be worn with the pleats facing up.
Black Tie Optional - You have a little more selection in what you wear. You may simply dress the same as you would for a Black Tie event, or women may also wear dressy separates and men may wear a dark suit and tie.
Creative Black Tie - This allows you to interpret Black Tie with a modern flair. Women may still wear a cocktail dress or gown, or evening suit, and men may wear a tux but with a bolo tie, black shirt without a tie, or something more daring but in keeping with the theme.
Semi-Formal - In the past, Semi-Formal would have been what today we call Black Tie, but today Semi-Formal is usually equivalent to Black Tie Optional. It is worth asking your hosts to make certain you have the right attire, or simply dress for Black Tie.
Cocktail Attire - For women, the little black dress (or other short cocktail dress) is the classic attire, although a pantsuit or dress suit (but not one that looks like a business suit) may also be worn. For men, it’s simply a dark suit and tie.
Dressy Casual - For men, dress pants and a jacket without a tie is a good choice, and for women dressy pants and blouse or jacket.
Casual - Casual pretty much lets you wear what you want in a comfortable way.
Informal - Informal is one to be careful of, as it sounds like casual but may really mean Semi-Formal, so ask your hosts if you are unsure.
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