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Written by Paula Jones Last updated: June 6, 2006
You’ve got the invite ‐‐ but what on earth should you wear?
Being invited to a formal occasion almost always throws up a “What shall I wear” dilemma, but this is intensified when you’ve never been to that particular type of celebration before. Sometimes the invitation will include a dress code, which I soften quite general and can be a challenge in itself, and sometimes it won’t say anything at all, leaving you to puzzle about what exactly people wear to christenings or engagement parties. Here are a few tips for getting it right…
According to etiquette experts Debrett’s one good way of getting an idea of how smart, formal or lavish the event will be is to look at the formality and quality of the invitation. This will give you some guidance as to what type of clothes would be most appropriate.
Special occasions are special, so don’t be afraid to put on your best clothes. “It is always better to be slightly overdressed rather than underdressed,” says Debrett’s Eleanor Mathieson.
This doesn’t mean going over the top, however. “Never over‐accessorise,” advises Eleanor. “Less is more. A simple, good‐quality piece of jewellery will make your outfit, as well as a smart, good quality handbag.”
If you’re in doubt about what to wear, don’t be afraid to ask the person who is organising the event, or a friend who’s also going. There’s nothing rude about admitting you don’t know.
Generally speaking, women have more leeway than men when it comes to dress codes, which often refer specifically to male attire. If an invitation says white tie, for example, it’s essential that women wear long dresses. If it says black tie, length of dress is optional, although it should be “dressy”. Formal dress will require a cocktail or long dress.
Instructions such as “smart casual” or “informal” can be puzzling. What they mean, according to Debrett’s, depends on what the occasion is. In the context of a wedding, wedding reception or christening, “smart casual” or “informal” doesn’t go as far as meaning that jeans are OK. “However, for an evening drinks party, jeans would be acceptable if they were well cut and worn dressed up with an evening top and jewellery,” says Eleanor. Again, if you’re not sure, ask the host or hostess.
As general rule it’s better not to wear anything too revealing. “Modesty will always win over low cut tops and very short skirts,” says Eleanor.
Bear in mind that if your special occasion includes a religious venue or element, there might be restrictions on what you can wear or dress codes that you should follow. Again, if in doubt ‐‐ ask.