Etiquette Tip of the Month

"Always dress up, because you can always dress down. Never dress down, because you can never dress up!"   --- Anonymous

"Men in Black," is an article in an early April 2004 Wall Street Journal publicaton that discussed how this time of year thousands of young men and women are making their first attempts at looking grown-up by dressing up to attend their proms. It also described the confusion shared by young and mature people alike in knowing what to wear to various parties and events.

Attire, at any age, expresses a person's lifestyle. For prom night, what you wear adds points to your high school "coolness" factor. In the working world, what you wear is an indication of your professionalism. Studies indicate successful people in virtually every business have developed a look and image that says success. Think of clothing as currency used to barter goodwill. Wardrobe conveys messages of status: authority, power, rank; personality: friendliness, dependability, adventurousness; class distinction: upper-, upper middle-, or lower middle-class; character and taste: trustworthiness and good judgment.

"Your clothing must be equal to the quality of your life. 
When you buy cheap, you get cheap."

Robert Panté

An appropriate wardrobe is a strategy for image development equally as important as other business and personal plans.

"Having a good public image makes friends, builds customer loyalty, attracts investors, motivates your staff, and helps you survive difficult economic times. A weak image is a liability that can cost you lost opportunities and can drive you out of business."  
Image Industry Council International

Begin your process to an appropriate wardrobe, and a good public image, with this primer on what to wear at various parties and events this spring and summer. Feel free to share this information with any teen you know who is selecting a prom night outfit this month.

Black Tie
  • For men, black-tie denotes a single or double-breasted dinner jacket with a black silk bow tie (properly referred to as a dinner jacket, but commonly called "tuxedo" or "tux.").
  • For women, an invitation to a black tie event means wearing a long, floor length evening dresses or evening separates. A short cocktail dress may be appropriate for some cocktail receptions, summer events, or daytime functions.
  • At international affairs, men and women are often invited to wear traditional formal attire from their country.
  • Military personnel wear an equivalent uniform.
NOTE: Gloves are optional. If worn, remove the right hand glove when going through a receiving line
Black Tie Optional

Black tie optional is a term created to allow guests (primarily men) to choose whether to wear formal clothes described above or informal attire described below. It is not an open invitation to dress in whatever a person's wants.

  • Choices for men are a tuxedo or a dark suit, white shirt, and evening tie. Nothing else!  No light colored suit, or sport coat, or who knows what else.
  • For women the choice of a floor length gown, evening suit, or short cocktail dress are all acceptable.

Business Casual

An American term invented by the fashion industry to promote a style of clothing that included a sport coat (such as a blue blazer), a white or colored shirt, tie, slacks, and loafer-style shoes. This allowed men more flexibility in their clothing choices than simply wearing a business suit to work every day. Over time this term has been used and abused to an indistinguishable level, having no true definition.

Corporate America, in an effort to increase productivity and morale, created Casual Fridays. The original intent was to demonstrate to the staff that owners and management of companies were flexible to the changes in modern business environments, by allowing staff to dress "down" one day a week.

Regrettably, studies show this strategy has backfired. Instead of building morale and encouraging work productivity, business casual opened a Pandora's box to mass confusion on what to wear to work on Fridays. Recent studies show a direct correlation to the diminished amount and accuracy of work produced on Fridays versus any other day of the week. As a result, more and more companies are moving back to one style of dress for all regular workdays.

No matter how you define business casual, according to this etiquette professional, "There is no place in the workplace for blue jeans!"


There are degrees of casual ranging from OK for business to OK for gardening at home. The trick is to dress appropriately for the activity.

  • Casual Dress: For both men and women casual denotes sports attire as appropriate for barbecues, patio or pool parties, casual suppers, and sporting events. If you are going to actually engage in a sport, of course, wear the appropriate tennis outfit, swimsuit, etc.
  • Dressy Casual: Men wear trousers (long or short) and collared shirt, with or without a tie, with a sweater or a sport jacket depending upon the weather. Women may wear either slacks or skirts. Skirts may be mini, short, mid-calf or long, and typically only in daytime fabrics.
  • Totally Casual: Any attire less than what is described above, and which-in my opinion-should only be worn around the house, to the supermarket, or camping.

Personal Annoyance: With the sole exception of when you attend an event in a domed stadium, baseball caps and other outdoor hats should not be worn indoors-in restaurants, movie theaters, offices, or homes. NEVER!

  • Traditionally, before six o'clock in the evening, women wear a late afternoon dress or a cocktail or theater suit.
  • Men wear a dark suit, dress shirt (traditionally white), and tie.
  • After six o'clock formal dress means black tie (see above) or white tie (see below).


The term "semi-formal" also denotes this style of dress, primarily in the evening. This term historically means just a cut under black tie for a moderately formal affair.

  • Before six o'clock in the evening informal signifies women wear an afternoon dress or dress suit. Men wear a coat and tie, such as a sport jacket with a tie or a dark or light business suit (depending upon the season and geographical location).
  • After six o'clock in the evening women may wear a very dressy afternoon dress or a short or long cocktail dress or dress suit. Men wear a dark business suit, a dress shirt (typically white), and evening tie.

White Tie

This most formal style of them all is not as often seen in the U.S. It denotes full evening attire for both men and women.

  • Men wear a long black tailcoat and white piqué bow tie-or equivalent military uniform.
  • Women don the dressiest floor-length formal gown she can dare to wear. If you wear gloves, remove them to eat, drink, or shake hands.

When venturing out with a partner, do take time to discuss and coordinate your outfits so that you are both within the same formality range. You want to compliment each other, not look like The Odd Couple, as depicted in this month's image shown above.

Happy Practicing!

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