Thursday, August 19, 2010

That’s Entertaining! Decoding the Dress Code on Party Invitations

by Barbara Burtoff

I have a house guest this week. She is currently up at Friendship Heights looking for the appropriate outfit to wear to a wedding. As she departed for the stores, she let out a long sigh, and said,” I just don’t know what to buy.”

I asked the most obvious questions: Is it a morning, afternoon or evening wedding? Will it take place at a church or temple, bride’s family home or restored historic house, hotel or private club, beach or park?

Her response to both: “I don’t know.”

“Why not?” I said.

And then she explained, “Because I ate the wedding invitation.”

The invitation had been hand-delivered in a see-through box. It was a five-by-five piece of milk chocolate covered with a thin, white edible topping upon which the invitation was printed. There was also a second version of the invitation in the box printed on paper. She remembers the chocolate but not where she put the paper invitation or the box.

The solution to her problem was easy. She could call one of her relatives also going to that wedding. But the fact is that even if you don’t eat a party invitation, it is sometimes impossible to figure out the appropriate attire from what is printed.

Would you know what to wear if you received an invitation that said “Dressy Casual”? That sounds like an oxymoron to me, but Tricia Post of the Emily Post Institute, based in Burlington, VT, offered an explanation: “For men, this would suggest that you show up in a seasonal sport jacket or blazer and slacks. You could wear a dress shirt, tie optional, or you could choose a casual button-down shirt, open collar or polo shirt. Women could pull from their closet anything from a dress, to a skirt, slacks or jeans with a dressy top,” she said.

If you get party or dinner invitations from your boss, you need to know the difference between “Business Formal” and “Business Casual.”

Post listed what would be appropriate if the invitation said “Business Formal.” “For a man, a dark business suit, dress shirt, conservative tie, dressy leather shoes and dark dress socks. For a woman, a suit, business-style dress or dress with a jacket, stockings (optional in summer), heels, low or high.”

She mentioned a couple of situations that would call for “Business Formal” attire: “When your company holds its annual awards dinner. When the company president asks you to join a group for a dinner to meet the heads of a firm from abroad that wants to do business with your firm.”

If a work-related invitation says “Business Casual,” that doesn’t mean you can show up so relaxed that you look sloppy. Said Post,“Think about the context. You might be socializing with people from the office but you still need to maintain a professional business demeanor. You still want to look put together. You are representing your company. No business suit would be expected for men nor ties. Otherwise, dress would be the same for men as listed under ‘dressy casual.’ For women, skirt, khakis or pants, open-collar shirt, knit shirt or sweater but no tops with spaghetti straps or that are low cut.”

Exactly what is “Festive Attire?” Explained Post, “For men, that would indicate a seasonal sport coat or blazer in the color of your choice with slacks, along with a dress shirt or open-collar shirt.” If a tie is worn, it might be in holiday red or green or have reindeers or Santas or some other seasonal design running across it. “For women: a cocktail dress or long skirt and top, a dressy pants outfit or separates, a little black dress. Choosing holiday colors or designs for clothes, jewelry and scarves makes it festive attire. Pay homage to the season, have fun with it, enjoy yourself,” Post said.

Then there is “Creative Black tie.” “For men,” continued this authority on etiquette, “this means a tuxedo combined with trendy or whimsical colors. Maybe you’d choose a black shirt or other colored shirt, rather than white, or matching colored or patterned bow tie and cummerbund, rather than the traditional black. For women, this is your chance to put on that formal floor-length evening gown you bought on sale and never had any place to wear, or just as acceptable would be a dressy cocktail dress, dressiest little black dress. Then add some fun or unique accessories.”

Here’s one you may already know: “Black Tie Optional.” For men, this means if you don’t have a tuxedo and don’t want to rent one, a dark suit would be okay worn with a white dress shirt, conservative tie. Women could still wear a formal evening gown or take it down a notch to a dressy cocktail dress, little black dress, dressy separates. Post said that this sometimes appears as “Semiformal” on invitations.

“Don’t get too cute when it comes to describing appropriate attire,” she warned. “If you do, your guests won’t have a clue as to what you expect them to wear.” She mentioned “Safari Chic” as one example of an unhelpful description. “You want your guests to feel comfortable and arrive ready to enjoy an event. That’s the whole point of communicating attire. That’s a part of being a good host or hostess. If you don’t succeed with your description, expect a lot of calls.”

If a party invitation goes by mail or email, the information about attire is traditionally placed on the lower right side. If you are inviting guests by phone, do mention attire.

Did you ever show up overdressed for a party at a friend’s home and hoped it would never happen again? “Men can avoid this worry by wearing a jacket and tie to the event and then taking them off if others are dressed more casually. Women could choose something that seems less dressy when covered with a jacket or a pashmina and then keep the top layer on and not reveal the dressy dress underneath, if others are more casual in their choice of clothing.” said Post.

Did you ever show up at a party much more casually dressed than other guests? Said Post,“You were invited for yourself, not your clothes. Just wear a big smile and, hopefully, your host or hostess will be gracious and welcoming.”

Tricia Post is one of seven members of the Post family who works at the Institute. She comes to it through marriage to Peter Post. who also works in the business. Likewise, their two daughters, Anna and Lizzie are involved full-time talking and writing about good manners. They are the fifth generation to do so.

It was back in 1922 that Emily Post wrote the definitive book entitled “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home.” The 18th edition will be published in autumn of 2011.

Had Tricia Post ever received an edible invitation? No, but she did send one equally imaginative. It was rolled up and put in a bottle along with some sand. It was for a lobster party. If this idea appeals, you can find bottles at local craft stores. But for mailing purposes, you also need to find a store selling boxes.

The Emily Post Institute maintains a web site: Once you reach it, you can click on Etipedia, which is a comprehensive, searchable etiquette reference. It covers so many categories of manners that I consider it one of the best kept secrets of the Internet.


Note: The following two items appeared in last week’s column. Unfortunately, there was a transmission glitch. Responses did not get to me. Any previously sent responses should be sent again care of the new email address, Entertainingways at (Be sure to substitute the at sign when you copy this email address).

Your Help, Please

When you think of host or hostess gifts, flowers or wine are probably the first thing that comes to mind. What else did you receive or give that you still remember because it was so special? Or maybe there’s something you just saw in a catalog, at a web site, in a museum gift shop and made a mental note that it would make a perfect present. Help me create a list of gifts that will let the host and hostess know that their efforts are appreciated. Mark the subject line: Hostess Gifts and send to Entertainingways at (Be sure to substitute the at sign when you copy this email address).

Contest Time

After 40 years of going to and covering parties, I can say that there are three things that hosts and hostesses tend to forget to do before guests walk in their front door. They probably don’t forget all three at the same party, but still there are three things that stick out in my mind.

If you can guess all three and are the first to do so, I’ll treat you and a guest to lunch at a restaurant in or near Cleveland Park at the end of September. You have until Monday, August 23 at noon to get your entry in to Entertainingways at (please convert to the usual email format when you send in your entry). Mark the subject line: Contest Time. Be sure to submit your name in full. Good luck.

Have a question or comment? You can reach Barbara Burtoff at Entertainingways at (Be sure to substitute the at sign when you copy this email address).


Barbara Burtoff spent 10 years as a food writer and editor for the Boston Herald daily newspaper. She visited farms and markets, attended culinary schools and cooking contests, and covered parties of all sizes from large, gala fundraisers to small gatherings at home. She then left to finish an M.S. Education degree, expanded from one paper to national syndication focusing on consumer/shopping issues, nutrition and psychology of eating topics.

That's Entertaining! is published by the Cleveland Park Listserv.

(c) 2010 Barbara Burtoff

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