Expert Tips Crack the Dress Code

Many wedding guests are often are as concerned as the bride and her attendants about what they will wear.

Once upon a time, there were golden rules of wedding attire: Don’t wear white — it upstages the bride; and don’t wear black — too funereal. It was often a reliable pastel dress and matching pumps hanging in the closet, waiting patiently for the wedding du jour.

Today, one can never go wrong with basic black. But what to do when it comes to a formal affair?

Even though dress codes have become somewhat relaxed, there are still some guidelines that savvy brides and grooms might consider including on their invitations if their wedding is a formal event. Guests are usually grateful for this considerate gesture, especially in an age where “anything goes” when it comes to attire.

To avoid any confusion, Bridal consultant Sue Winner encourages her clients to put some type of dress code description on invitations.

“Some clients are concerned that if they don’t put something [about appropriate dress] on the invitation, people will come in jeans and sport coats. We’ve become a very casual society,” said Winner, who has been in business for 21 years — and has more than 600 weddings under her veil.

Here’s a helpful dress code lexicon from “Town & Country Elegant Weddings” (Hearst Books, $60):

Black Tie

This means that women are to wear evening dresses (short or long) and, technically, men should wear traditional tuxedos. Yet, Winner said, it is not a commandment. She said men can certainly wear a dark suit — navy, black or charcoal gray would be acceptable.

The notation said, “please don’t show up in jeans and a sport coat,” Winner said. “Guests won’t be turned away, but they’ll be uncomfortable in the room.”

And for the women, etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige, the former White House social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy, advice columnist and author of several books, declares: “Pantsuits are not proper.”

Black Tie, Long Gown

This is not a common edict, but found occasionally — and Winner believes it’s redundant. Some couples find that this gives guests more clarification when the occasion is very dressy. Joan Rivers, for example, used this specific dress code on the invitations to her daughter Melissa’s fancy New York wedding because she felt dress was important to the overall effect of the event. (Take note: Perfect attire does not the perfect marriage make. Melissa’s 1998 marriage to John Endicott ended in divorce five years later.)

Black-Tie Optional

A bewildering dress directive for many guests, this option is considered by many etiquette experts to be very confusing.

“It’s the worst phrase in the English language,” Baldrige said.

Winner said that while common usage sometimes “makes things work, technically it is not correct. Black-tie optional is really a business term,” used, for example, when company officials might be hosting a dinner in honor of its retiring president, yet would not expect all company employees in attendance to rent a tuxedo.

As do most people who take the word optional to mean they don’t have to wear black tie. Those few who do dress up often feel out of place, making for a very mixed-up (and mixed-dress) crowd.

Creative Tie

Another distressing dress code according to Baldrige.

“An affair should either be black tie or not,” she said. “If it is not, you need say nothing at all.”

However, one fashion designer, John Anthony, believes that an invitation stating creative tie signifies that the hosts want the guests to be more thoughtful and lavish in considering their attire. It might mean a patterned cummerbund for the man and a frock that’s something other than the usual little black dress for a woman.

Casual or Island Chic

One bride planning a beach wedding put “island chic” on her invitations, said Winner. For other less formal celebrations, like some bar and bat mitzvah parties, hosts have indicated everything from “No Jeans, No Jackets” to a simple “casual chic.”

When in doubt about attire, Winner has a simple solution: “If you really don’t know, call the bride or the host and ask what they have in mind.”

Sharon Mosely of Copley News Service contributed to this story.

And Guest

To all the people who’ve invited me to events with those two fateful words, “And Guest,” I apologize.
I’m sorry you have to look through your wedding or shower or Bar Mitzvah photos and say, “Who’s that?” when looking at my date.

“What was his name?” said my aunt, squinting at the uncomfortable-looking guy standing next to me in a wedding photo.

It’s a familiar question for me. In my defense, I’d like to say that at the time, it always seems that Mr. And Guest is The One, soon to be a permanent fixture in my life and in my family. Is it my fault I’m either exceedingly optimistic or hopelessly misguided?

It’s not like I’ve intended to burden the world with my endless stream of McBoyfriends. I didn’t mean to squeeze that extra platter of mass-produced salmon out of you. I never wanted to give you another mouth to feed, one you don’t know or care to know.

It’s just that it’s no fun going solo. Case in point: a recent wedding in Catalina. Sure, there were a couple possibilities in the And Guest pool, but none seemed close enough to bring. I couldn’t handle the guilt, the photo review session, the “Who was that guy?”

I spent the weekend alone, a lone star in a galaxy of couples. All that beauty — the postcard blue ocean, the sailboats — seemed to mock me all weekend long.

“Look at me,” said the sunset. “I’m beautiful, you’re not. Otherwise, you’d have an And Guest, you loser. Goodbye.”

I woke up one morning that weekend with an early-morning inner vortex of need, that stomach-twisting, I-need-my-mother-or-a-good-cup-of-coffee feeling. I went and sat on the sidewalk with my cell phone and called home.

“Just bring a date next time,” my mom said. Right. How obvious.

But those magic words “And Guest” have begun to disappear from my invitations. Throwing a big party is expensive, and who wants to foot the bill for someone’s disposable guest? I totally understand. According to Internet-based etiquette specialists The Wedding Women, unless you’re married, engaged or living with a boyfriend, it’s not wrong or rude to make you go it alone.

“Sure, everyone has a better time when they’re invited with a date, but many couples limit the number of guests by inviting cohabitating partners only,” they advise.

Let’s face it, budgetary constraints aside, those wild card “And Guests” can add color to any affair. Sometimes they’re weird computer programmers, scantily clad new girlfriends or other gossip-worthy types that give everyone something to talk about. And Guests can really break up the monotony of socializing with the usual suspects, even if they are only begrudgingly welcome.

I have to be clear about one thing; it’s not so bad to be single. I embrace it. I choose it. I’m not complaining. For now, that’s just the way it is for many of us 20-somethings who are taking our time before cohabitating or marrying.

Still, think of us when you’re debating whether or not to invite with guest. Picture us driving to Calabasas, Ventura or some other hinterland all alone. Imagine us clutching a hard little dinner roll and scanning the room with a look of calm and confidence artificially etched on our faces. Picture us dancing with your 6-year-old nephew, because it’s that or trade “how do you know the groom” stories with an accountant and his wife from Ohio.

Ultimately, it’s just as rude to thrust some unwanted guest on a party-giver as it is to dispense with the feelings of us single guests. Trust us, I say. Give us the option of And Guest or And Escort and let us use our discretion to decide what would be appropriate. Sometimes, we’ll mess up. Trust me, we’ll feel guilty about it. Mostly, though, we’ll be able to enjoy your celebration more with someone in our corner.

Again, my apologies to anyone I’ve imposed upon. But the more I think about it, the less bad I feel. I think my favorite etiquette advice was from an article in Town & Country magazine. “While changing times have raised new questions about propriety, the very questions that will help you answer them — thoughtful-ness, sensitivity, maturity — are the same ones upon which strong marriages are built.” The article continues: “In the end, good old-fashioned manners, and kind hearts, can be the most reliable compass for navigating all questions of etiquette.”

Isn’t that well put? I thought so.

The Exodus

My friend Susie asked me to recommend a “goodhaggadah” for her seder. Tell me first about your guests, I said. Arethere many children? Grandparents? Republicans? Buddhists? Today,selecting a haggadah is a form of Rorschach test, a unique,personalized snapshot of you in the here and now, never to beduplicated again.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a simple andstraightforward tale of degradation, resistance and rebellion, butthese days, the prisms we see it through could not be more complex.There are feminist, environmentalist, Reform, Conservadox andReconstructionist rewritings of the story – not to mention thespecial Holocaust evocation written by Elie Wiesel. I could no morepick out a haggadah for you than I could choose your wedding dress.No haggadah today is one size fits all.

But it’s not politics and lifestyle alone thatmandate different strokes of the haggadic pen; the Passover sederis an entertainment worthy of A&E. On the Internet, there aredirections for how and where to procure locusts and frogs for aminiature “sound and light” show of real plagues, an interactiveExodus for the kids. The adults must be kept awake, too.

“It is no easy task to keep the seder experienceperpetually meaningful,” writes Rabbi David Blumenfeld and his eightco-authors in the introduction to “Keeping the Spirit Alive,” asupplement to the seder published by The United Synagogue ofConservative Judaism. The call of “when do we eat,” once a Passovertradition, is now an insult to the seder leader, an indication thathe or she has failed to ascend the ladder of spiritualinsight.

Picking out a haggadah and leading the seder was asimpler task in my grandfather’s day: there was the version we called”the whole thing.” Boredom was an expected part of seder, part of itsdelight.

But uniformity was not the whole story. Thoughthere were no choice in the matter of liturgy, interpretation wasanother matter. And this is as it should be: The haggadah says we aremandated to tell the story to fit the specific needs of those at thetable as the story of the Four Children implies. But like children,adults also want to be catered to.

I’ve been thinking about the seders long past, andsee them bathed in the glow of their specific eras. Not acookie-cutter seder among them. Here are a few:

A New Deal seder. Myparents were children of the Depression, and the seders of mychildhood were a cram course in Democratic New Deal-type politics,with a pro-labor pitch. Sure we Jews were slaves in Egypt, as theHaggadah says. Yes, Pharoah was an evil ruler. But there werecompensations. Somehow I had the distinct impression that buildingthe pyramids was one vast Works Projects Administration program. Atour seder table, unemployment was one of the Ten Plagues. And theclimax of the story was when the workers, er, slaves, organized andappealed to God for their freedom.

A post-Korean War seder. My uncle Bernie served in Korea, arriving after the UnitedNations cease-fire. Thus our seders in the late 1950s weremini-courses in American foreign policy. When he read “With a mightyhand and an outstretched arm,” my uncle clearly was indicating thatGen. Douglas MacArthur had a role in the Exodus and that Americanmilitary might helped part the Red Sea.

A civil rights seder. As a teenager in the 1960s, I went to Jewish summer campwhere Peter, Paul and Mary tunes of social action were part of thesong leader’s repertoire along with “Hatikvah.” At the seder tablethe following spring, I introduced “If I Had a Hammer,” with its callfor “love between my brothers and my sisters” of all races andcreeds. “Go Down Moses,” became a fixed part of our song list, rightafter “Chad Gadya.”

The dumbed-down seder. I was married now, and my friends and I had youngchildren. The seders were by definition short. I distributed crayonsand haggadah coloring books. The father of the youngest child readthe Four Questions. Soup was the main course and everyone was home inan hour. What was lost in detail we made up in passion anddirt.

Refusenik seders.The seders start to blend together now, as the tyrants come swiftlythroughout the 1980s. “In every generation” they rose up against us,first imprisoning Anatoly Sharansky in Siberia, the Chinesedissidents in Tieneman Square, and Nelson Mandela. But the times werechanging. My guests stopped relating to political enslavement, andstarted thinking of the psychological variety.

Creativity seders.During the years of feminist empowerment, I wrote my own haggadah,eliminating sexist language and avoided overt reference to God.Somehow the miracle of freedom occurred, because the Jews wanted itstrongly enough.

The spiritual seder.Today, our seder leaders reclaim Jewish ritual by going back to theHebrew. The seders that bored us as children are now filled withscintillating detail. We know 15 different interpretations of theword “Mitzrayim”– the Egypt of our enslavement that also means birth canal, thechannel through which all new life must flow. And chametz is not just the yeastedbread we can’t eat for eight days, but also a metaphor for ego, forambition, for the false idols which bulk up our lives. Many of uscan’t get enough of the sayings of Rabbis Eliezer, Joshua andTarphon.

Maybe next year we’ll be ready for the MaxwellHouse “unabridged deluxe” version – the “real thing.” In the meantime, the best way to enjoy your seder, is to be here now.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. She hosts a Thursday evening chat room on AmericaOnline at 8 p.m. EST. Keyword: JEWISH CHAT. Her e-mail address


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