There are several reasons why my husband and I adore the BBC version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. One, it's a superb adaptation - the closest one to the book both in terms of the story and in terms of casting. Two, it shows us a glimpse of an era when people had so much stuff to do around their houses (think about it - no electricity, no running water, no supermarkets, no Internet, no catalogs to order stuff from), that they actually took pleasure in their time off, when they had a chance to clean up, dress up and attend a country dance or a ball. Even families of limited means made sure that their sons and daughters knew how to dance and dress for such occasions. And while other aspects of everyday life in the early 19th century made it far from idyllic, I do find it sad that the great tradition of dressing up and getting together for dancing and conversation had all but vanished.
I receive proof of this sad reality constantly. At one point my husband's organization held an award gala at the Diana Wortham Theater in Asheville, North Carolina. The first version of the announcement for this event said "black tie". Then some people complained they did not own a tuxedo and did not have the time and/or the means to buy or rent one, and the announcement was downgraded to "black tie optional". When the event actually took place, more than half of all attendees took upon themselves the liberty to downgrade the dress code as far as "business casual" or just "casual".
People, people, people... "Black tie optional" merely releases you from wearing a tuxedo (or a formal ball/evening gown for women) - it is not a permission for you to wear jeans and polo shirts (for men) or sweaters and denim skirts (for women).
I know there are people out there who will roll their eyes and tell me they hate dressing up, because formal clothes are so uncomfortable and they just can't be bothered. Hogwash, folks! Not buying it! Would you show up looking like a slob at a job interview? I hope not. Then you must have one decent suit, decent shirt and decent tie stashed away somewhere. If you do not - go and get them, as well as a set of good dress socks and comfortable dress shoes (they do exist). It is an investment that will pay off in no time and will carry you through weddings, funerals, interviews, and formal functions.
The same applies to women - if you ever had to interview for a job, there has to be something can at least be dressed up to get a little bit closer to the formal event standards.
Everyone - to avoid discomfort with your formal attire (or any attire for that matter) get yourself measured by someone who knows what he/she is doing. Most dry cleaners do alterations and know how to take basic measurements (bust, waist, hips, the measurement from the nape of the neck to the knee and to the floor for the ladies; waist and inseam, neck and sleeve length, shoulder width for the gentlemen). If you do not think that your friendly local dry cleaner's associate qualifies, go to a clothing store (Men's Warehouse or S&K for the gentlemen, any place that sells formal wear or perhaps even a wedding store for the ladies). Write these measurements down. Ladies, as embarrassing as it might be, get yourself measured for the right bra size (any Victoria's Secret store will be happy to help you out with that) - two thirds of women out there wear wrong bras, and that can very much make or break your look.
Once you have your measurements, the sky is your limit. Gentlemen, look for places that sell suit separates or places that offer you an option to change out pants or jacket in a suit. The reason being that most suits go by the largest size - if you have broad shoulders and narrow hips, your jacket will fit but the pants will be too large. So, find out where you can get matching pieces that fit your upper and lower body appropriately. Find a brand of shirts you like and try several - as odd as it is, for some reason 16-1/2" for Van Heusen is not the same as 16-1/2" for Paul Frederick (I don't know why that is - it's really frustrating).
Once you have found the brand and the size that fits, write it down - that way you'll be able to order on line. In general, one of the best places to buy suits and shirts (as well as ties, shoes and socks) is an outlet - they usually include some good brand name stores (Van Heusen, Hagger, Ralph Lauren, etc.), but everything is available at a fraction of the original price. Plus, shirts are neatly arranged with matching ties, which makes things a lot easier for the color-scheme challenged (hey, it happens!).
Ladies, you are fortunate to have even more options than the gentlemen. With your three-four basic measurements in the bag, you can go to any on line catalog (Chadwick's of Boston, Coldwater Creek, Newport News, Spiegel, etc.), check their size charts and shop away (especially if you are like me and hate crowded malls). Better yet - you can go on eBay and check out the vintage wear section. While the Victorian and Edwardian era pieces are usually too fragile for active wear and the formal wear from the 1970's and 1980's is, frankly, hideous (ah, the big butt bows), there is the golden ideal - the formal wear from the 1950's (also known as "the new look").
The lovely hourglass shape of the 1950's dresses is by far the most forgiving for nearly any height, weight and body type and those large circle skirt make your waist look tiny. Due to the dramatic size chart changes that took place in the last 60 years all of the sellers dealing in the 1950's wear include measurements, as well as detailed information about the garment (fabric, fasteners, decorations, patterns and any defects.) Most of the garments are in fantastic shape, are available in a variety of sizes and need no more than a round of dry cleaning. Hundreds of them are very reasonably priced. All you need to do is add the items you are interested in to your eBay watch list and keep an eye on them. Yes, there will be times when you won't win, which is why you need to pick out several options. Also, check the items that have a "Buy it now" option - they are more expensive, but you don't have to wage the bidding war and risk losing. One of my recent formal wear purchases was a fantastic pale pink gown that was offered with the "Buy it now" option for mere $65.00 - a bargain, if you ask me, considering the piece was in mint condition and of wearable size.
The vintage category is also a great source for the fabulous old-fashioned purses, belts and costume jewelry - those little details that can enhance your look so much. The only part of your outfit that requires your personal attention prior to the purchase is shoes. You have to try them on. My shoe rack includes pairs in sizes 5, 5-1/2 and 6 - they vary that much. If you are unaccustomed to wearing high heels, find something with a wedge or a stacked heel for better support. Do not wear shoes with ankle straps if you have chunky ankles - they (your ankles) will look strangled. A wedge heel will open up your foot and make you look as if you are floating on air. By the same token, ladies with dainty bones and slender ankles, please do not encase yourself in those big clunky platforms - they will look like soup plates on your feet. I don't care how fashionable they are - just because it's the most recent trend doesn't mean it will look good on you.
To summarize... If you are invited to a "black tie optional" event,
GENTLEMEN, DO NOT WEAR ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:
- Polo shirts
- Blue button down shirts
- Turtlenecks or mock turtlenecks (unless they are exquisitely fitted, made of high-quality materials like silk or cashmere and are worn with a knockout suit - there are not many people in the world who can pull off that look at a "black tie" or "black tie optional" event.)
- T-shirts (I would have to personally shoot you)
- Novelty ties
- Novelty shirts in overly flamboyant colors and patterns
- 1970's-style prom suits
- Business casual loafers
GENTLEMEN, WEAR ONE OF THE FOLLOWING:
- A tux with a crisp tuxedo shirt, a bow tie and a cummerbund or a vest. Make sure your bow tie matches the cummerbund or the vest. Ensure you wear appropriate dress socks (there are knee-high socks specifically designed to be worn with a tux) and appropriate shoes. While tuxedo shoes are expensive, there are army surplus that sell navy uniform dress shoes that work awesome for a fraction of the cost. Also, there are eBay sellers that sell tuxedo shoes from tux rental places, although you may have to order a couple of pairs to make sure you get the right size.
- A dark suit (black or charcoal gray - browns and navies are a bit too "day-at-the-office) with a crisp white shirt and a good quality tie with a handsome color scheme. Or you can wear a colored shirt in, say, dark burgundy with a sharp tie that picks up the colors of both the suit and the shirt to tie them together. If you are feeling brave, get a shirt with French cuffs and wear cuff links that go well with your tie.Dress socks and good dress shoes.
- A mandarin collar shirt in black or white with the tux - careful with that, this look is not for everyone although it can be very sharp.
LADIES, DO NOT WEAR ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:
- White shirt and black pants or white shirt and black skirt - people will be asking you to refill their drinks and get them a clean fork.
- Denim skirts
- Chunky sweaters
- Boots (sorry, gals, even dress boots will not do for a formal event).
- T-shirts (and no, just because you are a girl doesn't )
- Whatever you wear to the office every day
- Those huge tent-like garments that make you look like a walking sack
- Anything that looks like club wear. A super-skimpy, super-tight, super-short outfit does not equa formal, nor does something that has slits up to your crotch or v-necks down to your belly button. You are not Lola the show girl and you don't have feathers in your hair.
- Tote bags
- Sneakers (orthopedic shoe industry made some tremendous progress in the last 20 years - sneakers are not your only option anymore, if you require special footwear. Comfortable, yet good looking shoes do exist - do your homework!)
LADIES, WEAR ONE OF THE FOLLOWING:
- A full-length evening dress with appropriate underwear, hosiery, purse and shoes. It need not be black - chocolate brown, dark rich purple, royal blue and various shades of wine are just as elegant and slimming.
- An evening top and long skirt combination in something other than black and white. If you absolutely totally hate skirts, consider a pair of gorgeous flowing palazzo pants - with the right top and accessories, they'll look just as fabulous as an evening gown. Wear darker solid colors or smaller patterns on a larger portion of your body and a lighter colors or larger patterns on the part you'd like to enhance.
- A little black dress - it will do in a pinch, but it has to be perfect: perfectly tailored to show off your figure, in high-quality fabric teamed with spectacular jewelry, purse, hosiery and shoes. Otherwise you'll just look frumpy and like you dropped in from the office and are ready to leave at any moment.
- If it is cold out and you have a bit of a walk from where you park to where the event takes place, consider a shawl or (if it's in the budget) an evening cape or an evening coat (they do exist - the eBay vintage section is an awesome source for those too). Please - PLEASE - do not ruin your outfit by covering up your lovely dress or evening suit with a windbreaker.
- Make sure your nails are trimmed and clean - that includes toe nails, especially for you, ladies. You don't want to ruin the sight of your exquisite legs in fine sexy fishnets and killer open-toe shoes with protruding talons.
- Moisturize your whole body - if your evening outfit includes synthetic fabrics, they will be less likely to disturb moisturized skin, plus a good rubdown improves your circulation and gives you a healthy glow. Guys, healthy complexion has never killed everyone, and just because your skin doesn't feel like sandpaper when you shake hands with people doesn't imply that you are a wus.
- Ensure that your hair is clean and trimmed. Ladies, if you have long hair and plan to wear it up, wash it a day in advance - it stays together a little better when it's a little "greasy". Try your hairdo of choice in advance to make sure it works well for you and looks good. Wear it for a few hours - remember it can be a long evening and you want to be comfortable. Gentlemen, the "bed head" hair style does go well with formal wear. Please keep that in mind. If you are not sure what to do with your hair for the evening, consult with a barber or a stylish friend.
- Try your evening outfit on in advance, walk around in it, sit stand, do a few dance moves, make sure you are comfortable - you don't want to ruin your evening by a strangling collar or pinching shoes. Consider putting gel pads into your shoes, if you know there will be a lot of standing around. Try your shoes at the end of the day when your feet tend to be swollen and make sure your footwear still fits and feels good.
- Ladies, consider wearing light makeup, even if the event is on a weekend and you have a shot at a good night's sleep. You don't have to pile on layers and layers of everything. A tinted moisturizer applied over the course of several days prior to the event will give you a healthy glow. A tiny bit of concealer for the bags under your eyes (let's face it - we all have them) will take years off your face. Lipstick need not be super-bright or super-glossy - in fact, you can get away with a subdued lip pencil and lip gloss applied over it (both are loads easier to handle with precision than a conventional lipstick). Bring a friend who knows more about makeup than you do to pick out shades of moisturizer, concealer and lip stuff that compliment your skin.
- Check your outfit for missing buttons, minor holes, undone seams, loose hems, scuffs (for the shoes), etc. - do it a couple of days in advance and fix everything then. Obviously, make sure your clothes are clean and pressed. You don't want to look like a slob.
- Most of all - if you are the kind of person who normally avoids formal events, because they make you feel awkward, give yourself another chance. If you are well-groomed, clean, pressed and comfortable, you might actually have a good time. Looking good will not obscure your personality - that is a fallacy spread by people who are too scared or too lazy to make an effort at looking good. On the contrary, if you learn how to look good while remaining comfortable, your best personality traits will truly shine - your outer and inner beauty will work in tandem and enhance each other. Your very lifestyle will improve, as you stop depriving yourself - and people who care about you - of the joy that special occasions can be.