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Guide To Suitable Attire

February 17, 2010
By Judi Henrickson

After attending the Wheeling Symphony Viennese Ball, I thought I might address the etiquette of what attire to wear when an invitation states formal, semi-formal, etc. This is sometimes confusing and can be embarrassing if you make the wrong choice.

The tuxedo or "dinner suit" has only existed as an option of formal attire since the late 19th century. Prior to this time, the traditional mode of formal wear was a suit which included a jacket with tail coat.

The original dinner suit was designed for King Edward VII when he was still Prince of Wales, and was first worn by him at dinner aboard his yacht in Cowes. This suit was simply a traditional tail coat which had the tails removed.

The concept of the dinner suit rose to prominence following its debut in America. In 1896, Pierre Lorillard IV designed several coats he intended to wear to a ball. Pierre wanted to wear something less formal than the traditional dress of the time - black tails with black tie. The coats were black but without tails and were shaped like the red jackets that were then worn for fox hunting. This decision was thought to be an attempt to rebel against the influence of the British upper class who were influential in setting standards of dress and behavior during this period.

The Lorillards were tobacco magnates and owned land in a town called Tuxedo Park, approximately 40 miles north of Manhattan. Pierre Lorillard was to attend the 1896 Autumn Ball of Tuxedo Park. The coats were custom-made by a local tailor but Pierre backed down from wearing the revolutionary garments on the night of the ball.

Pierre's son, however, and his friends did wear the new jackets to the ball. The high social status of the young men wearing the new style jackets resulted in the design being imitated and accepted -not condemned as Pierre had feared.

The new style jacket became known as the tuxedo. The use of the term tuxedo, or tux, is largely confined to America, with dinner jacket or dinner suit now being the most common form of description.

The style of the dinner suit has remained the same over the years, with changes mostly being in the design of the lapels and the number of buttons on the jacket. The bow tie did not become popular until the 1920s and the cummerbund was only later introduced following British governance of India (from the Hindu "kamarband").

"White tie" or "ultra-formal" requires men wear full dress, with white tie, white piquet vest and white shirt. Women wear long gowns.

A "black tie" invitation calls for formal attire. Men wear tuxedos, women wear cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates.

"Formal" usually means the same as black tie -women wear cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates.

"Black tie optional" gives you the option of wearing a tuxedo or formal dress, but it should clue you into the formality of the event, meaning a dark suit and tie would be your other option. Women wear cocktail, long dresses or dressy evening separates.

"Semi-formal" or "after five" means that tuxes are not required, nor are long dresses. An evening wedding (after 6 p.m.) would still dictate dark suits for him, and a cocktail dress for her. Daytime semi-formal events mean a suit for him and an appropriate short dress or dressy suit for her.

"Business formal" is the same as semi-formal for him, but for women it suggests more tailored dressy suits and dresses (nothing too slinky or sexy).

"Cocktail attire" means short, elegant dresses for her and dark suits for him.

"Informal" is often interpreted as the same as casual, but it actually calls for the same dress as semi-formal - dark suits for him, short dresses for her - especially when associated with a wedding or special event.

"Festive attire" is usually seen around the holidays, with the mood of the party being informal or semi-formal. For her, it means to choose looks with a bit of sparkle or holiday (a beaded sweater with black pants, a red silk blouse with a black skirt, etc.).

"Dressy casual" calls for dressed-up versions of casual looks. For him, it could be trousers and a sport coat; for her, a dressy pants look. Jeans, shorts, T-shirts and other casual looks are not appropriate for dressy casual.

"Casual" generally means anything goes.


Judi Hendrickson of Wheeling is the co-author with Dr. Jeanne Finstein of "Walking Pleasant Valley" and is working with Finstein on their second book, "Walking Woodsdale." She teaches etiquette and presents programs on Tea Time Traditions, the History and Etiquette of Tea and Wedding Traditions.

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