Choosing what to wear when an invitation only confuses the issue.

When the invitation’s no help

“BLACK TIE OPTIONAL.” I think most women would rather be served with divorce papers than open an invitation and see those three little words.

What exactly does that mean? A floor-length gown, a sequined cocktail dress or your best LBD? And what does that require of your significant other? Should you bring his tux to the cleaners? Or will his best navy suit be appropriate? In a smaller, more rustic venue, say a Vermont inn for a 6 p.m. wedding, would charcoal flannel pants and a navy blazer do?

When it comes to event dressing, most people prefer to have it spelled out. In my experience, Black Tie Optional creates a bit of confusion resulting in a mixed bag of attire. I have also learned not to “assume” anything based on the venue. I’ve been to spectacular, no-expense-spared events that were not black tie. Why? You’ll have to ask the hosts.

What other attire requests spark a shiver of worry? “Festive Attire.” “Sparkling Attire.” “Dazzling Attire.” “Casual Chic.” “Cocktail Attire.” I’ve received them all.

If you are unsure about what you should wear, the best way to find out is to communicate with the hostess. Generally, it is her vision, and attire may well play a part in the theme or mood she is trying to achieve. If you are accepting an invitation, it is your duty as a good guest to heed instructions.

For instance, you have a beautiful, long dress that you have only had occasion to wear once. You receive a Black Tie Optional invitation and are thrilled you will have a chance to wear it again. But after touching base with the hostess, you find out only the bridal party will be wearing long (and so probably will Aunt Esther.) What to do? Wear short.

Or you’re invited to a costume party but hate to dress up. Some people love costume parties. Some people loathe them. Most of us feel extremely silly when we are getting dressed and even sillier on the drive over, dressed as the Cowardly Lion. Ultimately, when everyone arrives, it is a fun-filled night. The one thing you don’t want to do is accept and show up as a “couch potato.” If you can’t embrace the spirit of the event, decline the invitation.

I think it’s always acceptable for the hostess to be a notch more festive than her guests. After all, it’s her special day or night. One thing you don’t want to do is outshine her so it’s always safer to err on the side of something elegant and a little more conservative rather than giving a second outing to something you wore to your own important event.

What about business dinners or 7 p.m. charity events? If you’re coming from work, this would be a perfect night to wear your classic navy wool sheath dress. By day, pair it with boots and a cardigan. By night, change into burgundy suede Jimmy Choo pumps, ditch the cardigan, switch your day bag for an understated clutch and add a touch of bling. Similarly, if you don’t work, this is not the night to wear the short, bare LBD, you wore to your best friend’s 40th birthday party on a SoHo rooftop. You don’t have to wear a pinstripe suit, but your own ensemble should echo what the majority of attendees will be wearing.

I think everyone has had a moment when they looked around and felt like a fish out of water by appearing under- or overdressed. Of the two, I’ll take the latter every time. In a pinch, you can always let it be known that you will be attending “two parties” that night and will be leaving a bit early.

Given the choice, I’d rather appear glamorous than unwitting.

Visit Diva Debbi at


Written By
More from Debbi OShea
Dresses and photographs Courtesy of Richard’s of Greenwich Is it any wonder...
Read More
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *