Question: I don't know about you, but it drives me crazy that people in our community don't dress for the theater anymore. They're just as likely to jump on a plane in their shorts and a T-shirt. What gives with that? What really irks me are those tricky invitations with wording such as "business casual," "casual attire," "festive attire," and even "black tie." I am completely lost and don't want to embarrass myself. Help, please!
Answer: It's simply a fact of modern life that attire, whether in the office, a night on the town, or even a cocktail party, is a lot more informal than it once was. In my book, that's not the end of the world as we know it, nor does it mean you need to follow suit. Back in the day, when my grandmother took me to a Broadway show, she made sure I looked as perfectly put together as Glee's Darren Criss. Going to the opera or leaving on a jet plane were treated as events, and what you wore reflected respect, both for the situation and for yourself. So while those who feel fine waltzing into a five-star restaurant in a Hooters T-shirt and flip-flops might disagree, our wardrobe choices absolutely do reflect our personality, character, and judgment. Your clothes are your first means of communicating who you are to the world, and they often speak volumes, whether you like it or not.
But I'm also remembering the famously unfashionable Albert Einstein, who admonished, "If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies.... It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside." Why does this make me think of certain GOP candidates running for president? But I digress.
As for those fuzzy fashion directives on today's invitations, you are so right: they seem designed to make us go shopping so that we'll fit in (or take meds in case we don't). In fact, some claim that the concept of "casual Fridays" was initially a marketing campaign by companies like the Gap that was intended to promote their new lines of (surprise!) casual wear. But does "casual Friday" attire pass muster for a "business casual" event? Is a black tie really optional at a "black tie optional" gala? For the record, here's a primer on deciphering those pesky phrases about what to wear:
Generally, this all-in-one phrase is a request to look "professional," which meant "wear what you would wear to work" before people started wearing shorts to the office. Even in the best of times, it would have meant one thing for a doctor or lawyer and quite another for a filmmaker or fashion designer. Short answer: take it up two notches from your normal workday outfit, but don't fancy it up with duds you wouldn't be caught dead in at a meeting of your peers. If the invitation specifies "business casual," go ahead and wear what you'd normally wear to work.
For men: The most traditional guys in the room will wear a dark business suit with a white or light blue shirt, a fairly conservative tie, and leather shoes; or a sports coat with an open-collar shirt and no tie. Want a more contemporary look? Go for a well-tailored (subtly patterned) suit or a combination of a tweed or navy blazer with black or gray flannel trousers. Choose a brighter-than-usual shirt-and-tie combo (rep stripes or paisleys), well-made wingtips, and a discreet belt. Or, if you fashion yourself a modern James Dean, do dark denim jeans, a well-cut shirt, and a blazer.
For women: As usual, you have more choices, ranging from a cocktail dress to a fitted skirt and top to a well-tailored suit (skirt or pants). Try a brightly colored turtleneck or a well-made T-shirt for layering. Or go for a menswear-inspired trouser, feminized with high heels, or a fitted black blazer over a knit dress. But heed designer John Bartlett as you consider your baubles, belt, and bag: "Don't accessorize too much. It will make you look older."
Festive Attire (sometimes referred to as "Dressy Casual"):
Ubiquitous on holiday party invitations, this catch-all phrase suggests that both men and women should sport more sparkle or pizzazz than usual. In the end, festive is more about attitude than fashion. What it doesn't mean is either "formal" or your day-to-day dreary work attire.
For men: If it's a winter party and you're more Brooks Brothers than John Varvatos or Club Monaco, a red or green sweater (no snowmen, please) is all you need to brighten your look. In the summer, think of classic colors like hibiscus and jade green. For more fashion-forward or laid-back guys, you'll be fine in anything from a sports coat and slacks to a cashmere sweater with well-tailored trousers -- even dark blue, black, or white jeans (depending on the season). But jazz it up with an elegant scarf, a chunky bracelet, or a studded belt, something that pumps up the volume.
For women: You'll never go wrong in a little black dress with pumps and pearls, but this is the night to add a sequined or faux fur wrap and a pair of sparkly earrings. Also fine: a slim skirt and silk top, or a lacy camisole with black jeans. Satin and velvet are fine as long as the outfit itself isn't too formal (no ball gowns, please), but feel free to kick it up and show some skin.
Easy does it; don't mimic the Hollywood stars, who live on another planet. And this is definitely one area where the rules are complex and sometimes unforgiving. Here are the guidelines for mere mortals.
For men: Formal attire generally calls for a black tuxedo jacket with matching trousers, a black bow-tie and cummerbund, a white tux shirt, and black patent leather pumps (yes, pumps, sometimes even with a grosgrain bow for the full Ralph Lauren effect) or black dress shoes. If you're chafing under those conventions, ditch the black bow tie and cummerbund for those with a pattern or striking color; you also have permission to wear suspenders and forget about the cummerbund entirely. If you want to go more Hollywood, you can show up in a black suit, spread collar white shirt, and a skinny black or metallic tie. Bartlett, always practical, suggests that if you can only afford a suit or a tux, "Spend your money on a good suit ... and keep it simple and masculine."
Remember that "black tie optional" means that the event is formal and some guests will be in tuxedos. If you're opting out of the full get-up, be sure your suit is dark and top-notch -- and, please, wear a tie. No, you don't have to wear the monkey suit, but believe me: you don't want to be the one in a sports coat for this one. Grow up or don't show up!
For women: If you're going old school (hello, Angelina Jolie!), this is the time for a formal evening dress (a.k.a. a gown) or an uptown cocktail dress. Add your own creative touches with a sparkly bag, jewelry, or a fringy shawl. But remember, when it comes to accessories, less is more. As for footwear, this is the time to step into your version of high heels, whatever that may be. If this doesn't sound like the kind of lesbian you are, that's fine. Don a sleek suit with a white shirt and tie or a black velvet Nehru jacket. Mixing and matching from feminine and masculine styles works just fine.
By the way, the "black tie optional" warning from the men's section above applies to you, too: events with this label will draw a range of dress styles, and you don't want to find yourself out of step.
Now, go out and have a good time -- but first make sure your shoes are polished and your outfit is lint- and cat-hair-free.
This column originally was published on Advocate.com.
Steven Petrow is the author of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and can be found online at gaymanners.com. Got a question? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact him on Facebook and Twitter.