The invitation said “black tie optional” awards gala. It was a business event, the highlight of a conference in Las Vegas with hours to prepare built into the schedule. I had visions of dapper dudes in tuxedos and fashionable women in cocktail attire. I envisioned a fancy dress night on a cruise. What surprised me, however, was how many people interpreted “black tie optional” as anything goes.
Some of the deviations were appropriate ethnic attire for the multi-cultural crowd, but others showed embarrassingly poor taste. There were people dressed for Vegas night clubs. Others looked like they belonged in Night Court.
“Black Tie Optional” Definition
Most etiquette books and fashion magazines interpret “black tie optional” as (for men) a tuxedo along with a black silk bow tie. or a dark dressy suit (black or navy) with a single-colored or subtle-patterned tie. For women, long ball gowns, cocktail dresses or dressy evening separates are appropriate. (Silk, satin and/or sequins make a dress than might be cut the same as an everyday cotton casual one appropriate.) Shoes should be suitably dressy. Skin is appropriate for women (décolletage, slit dresses, minis) within reason.
Ethnic Formal Wear
Many events specify that ethnic formal options are appropriate, such as the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association Gala. The Hawaii state ball at the Obama Presidential Inauguration specified Hawaiian garb, such as Holoku gowns and aloha-print ties, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Ethnic formal wear varies from Japanese kimonos to Chinese cheongsam. The event I attended included several Indians in exquisite silk saris or colorful salwar kameez, colorful African evening ensembles ranging from dashikis to Senegalese bubus with matching head scarfs, and Sikhs in colorful Dastar turbans, many choosing to dress up their heads with finer fabrics and colors to match their shirts. All the ethnic attire displayed at the gala were made in fancier fabrics than would be worn every day in keeping with the formal evening.
What Not to Wear
Most people did dress appropriately, but it was sad to see how many didn’t. There were men in khaki pants and shirts that wouldn’t even qualify as “business casual.” Really, a cotton Hawaiian shirt as formal wear? There were women in flip-flops (not fancy sandals; cheap flip-flops). Nearly all the women did wear dresses, but some looked like cotton sundresses. Also, some fancy ones were too skimpy and too slutty for a business event … unless they planned to earn money in Vegas afterwards.
One observation that night was women with tattoos need to consider how they look when choosing formal wear. Maybe it’s being over 40, but there were women with tattoos that didn’t seem like the right accessory for a ball gown. It’s fine to show a tasteful tattoo, but some heavily inked women chose to wear dresses that showed a lot of skin.
Advice for Future
If you are attending a “black tie optional” event, you can’t go wrong with elegant formal wear. But, if you aren’t sure, check what’s appropriate with the host, organization holding the event, or people who have attended before. This event was an annual gala and half the people had attended prior ones. I have no doubt which half they were in the room.
Urban Dictionary: Black Tie Optional
Glamour: Semiformal? Black Tie Optional?
GQ: Black Tie Optional