It happens several times a year. Ill be sitting at my desk and the phone rings. An unsure female voice on the other end says, Ive been invited to a black-tie event. Do I have to wear a long dress?
As social editor of the Observer and SouthPark magazine, I have always told them that yes, they do. Even in 2013, to me the black-tie dress code means men wear tuxedos and women wear either full-length gowns or skirts that are to the floor paired with an elegant blouse.
Anything shorter from ankle length, knee length or beyond and youve drifted into the dress code for black-tie optional or cocktail attire.
But over the years, as our culture has become less formal in all areas including what we wear to work, church and special events Ive noticed more women wearing cocktail attire to formal events, and I wonder if Im being too old-fashioned.
Does it really matter anymore?
Ive talked with many different event organizers, and their opinions differ. Some wince when they see guests ignore their dress code request, especially in our manners-conscious Southern city. Others are more concerned with selling tickets to their fundraisers than with what guests choose to wear.
Personally, Im afraid, because for every elegant, well-dressed person I see at black-tie events, there are those who dont have a clue what theyre doing, or worse, they dont care. Loosen the rules more and I cringe at what we all might be exposed to.
At a recent formal event, I was taken aback by some of the women I saw in ensembles that were more appropriate for an office party than a gala. Or were in dresses so short and tight they were better suited to a nightclub.
Wearing cocktail attire to formal events is definitely a trend thats happening, says etiquette expert Lizzie Post, 30, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post. She works for the Vermont-based Emily Post Institute ( www.emilypost.com) and is co-author of the 18th edition of Emily Posts Etiquette.
A formal event is not something you wear knee length to, even up here in Vermont where we are very informal, she says. But ask me again in two years.
One of the best-dressed women on Charlottes social scene is Liz Hilliard.
She says shes also seen more cocktail dresses at formal events over the past several years, but she personally wouldnt do it unless the host requested it.
I attended a wedding in Texas over the summer, and the host told me its going to be hot so wear short, says Hilliard. But other than that if I get an invitation that says Black Tie, Im going to be in a long dress.
On the Charlotte scene, there are those who occasionally break the traditional Black Tie Rules, and it works because what theyre wearing is fabulous and theyre confident enough to pull it off.
Laura Vinroot Poole, owner of Capitol boutique, considers herself traditional. If my husband is in a suit, then a cocktail dress is perfect, but if he is in a tuxedo, then I am almost always in a gown, she says. However, she has been known to be a rule breaker, but only for a spectacular reason. Maybe for a Saint Laurent Le Smoking tuxedo or a hot pink satin shift, but never, ever for something boring or because I was feeling lazy.
Favorite rule breakers
Among my all-time favorite nontraditional black-tie looks are Renee McColl in a Chanel jumpsuit at the 2011 Bella Notte, a fundraiser for Opera Carolina thats the most formal event of the year; Cathy Austin at the 2012 Bella Notte gala in a high-low Wes Gordon gown; and Sharon Holm in tea length Carolina Herrera at this years Pride Awards gala.
Things are changing now, says Holm, marketing specialist for the Gantt Center, who has lived in Hong Kong, the South of France and Copenhagen. You should always be classic and elegant, but you dont have to follow such formal protocol.
She wore her Carolina Herrera dress that was several inches above her ankles with Prada pumps, a vintage purse and jewelry, including Cartier Love bracelets. For me, the only rule at a formal affair is to be comfortable and make a statement, she says. You want to have on something with a wow factor that really takes it up a notch.
The art of fashion
McColl, owner of Renee George Gallery, has tremendous respect for the men and women who put a lot of time and effort into organizing Charlottes many fundraising events. She also looks at fashion as art, loves investing in quality pieces that will last a lifetime and has a strong sense of her own personal style.
I know most people wear long to a formal event, says McColl. I was a little nervous at first. A jumpsuit? Black tie? But once I put it on I thought, Forget it, its too gorgeous.
Austin, an interior designer, considers herself by the book when it comes to dressing for occasions, and she had no reservations about wearing a high-low gown to a black-tie event. If something is white tie, it definitely dictates floor length, she says. With black tie, go long or short or whatever youre most comfortable in.
She cites Debretts, the British-based authority on etiquette and manners, as a good guide.
I went to www.debretts.com, and under Black Tie, it said For ladies, a smart dress (such as a cocktail dress) is appropriate. It can be long or short, as long as its not too short. It need not be black.
Atlanta designer Jay Reynolds, one of the winners of Belks 2012 Southern Designer Showcase, believes its acceptable to wear a short, formal dress, but attention to glamour is important. Hes a fan of a trend he says will be big this spring and summer: illusion gowns where part of the skirt is made of sheer fabric so you get the length of a long gown, but you can still see the womans legs.
A chance to go formal
Black-tie events are the only time in Charlotte when we have an opportunity to go more formal, and plenty of women still look forward to wearing a full-length gown. Within the last week, Ive attended two events where gowns from designers spring collections were showcased, and some of them were so elegant and beautiful, I look forward to seeing them on guests at galas.
I wont have to wait long for one of them. North Carolina Dance Theatre dancer Sarah Hayes Watson is wearing a bright yellow gown from Oscar de la Renta with tiers of ruffles when she walks the red carpet at a fundraising gala for the troupe on Saturday at Knight Theater.
But maybe the events co-chair, the fabulous and fashionable Midge Barron, has the right approach. For part of the evening shell wear a long gown, and then shes changing into something shorter to dance in when the band starts playing.
Its not what Im going to wear, she told me. Its how many Im going to wear.