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.