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When it comes to “Black Tie,” are the rules are changing in Charlotte?

By Olivia Fortson
ofortson@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • A guide to the rules

    When to break the traditional Black Tie Rule, and when to play it safe.

    Acceptable

    • If the host requests you wear a shorter length.

    • If you have a strong sense of your own personal style and are wearing something special and fabulous.

    • If what you’re confident, classic and elegant.

    Unacceptable

    • Too short and too tight is never appropriate.

    • When you are the guest of a guest, you don’t want to run the risk of embarrassing the person who invited you.

    • When what you have on is something you would also wear to an ordinary party.

    Make it clear

    • If you’re hosting a black-tie event and you take the dress code seriously, etiquette expert Lizzie Post recommends making it clear on the invitation that women are expected to wear floor-length attire by wording it as “Black Tie Formal.”



It happens several times a year. I'll be sitting at my desk and the phone rings. An unsure female voice on the other end says, “I've 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 you've 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 to wear to work, church and special events – I've noticed more women wearing cocktail attire to formal events, and I wonder if I'm being too old-fashioned.

Does it really matter anymore?

I've 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 events than what guests choose to wear.

Personally, I'm afraid, because for every elegant, well-dressed person I see at black-tie events, there are those who don't have a clue what they're doing, or worse, they don't 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 that's 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 Post's 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 Charlotte's social scene is Liz Hilliard.

She says she's also seen more cocktail 8dresses at formal events over the past several years, but she personally wouldn't do it unless the host requested it.

“I attended a wedding in Texas over the summer, and the host told me it's going to be hot so wear short,” says Hilliard. “But other than that if I get an invitation that says black tie, I'm 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 they're wearing is fabulous – and they're 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 non8traditional black-tie looks are Renee McColl in a Chanel jumpsuit at the 2011 Bella Notte, a fundraiser for Opera Carolina that's 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 year's 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 don't 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 Charlotte's 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, it's 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 you're most comfortable in.”

She cites Debrett's, 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 it's not too short. It need not be black.”

Atlanta designer Jay Reynolds, one of the winners of Belk's 2012 Southern Designer Showcase, believes it's acceptable to wear a short, formal dress, but attention to glamour is important. He's 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 woman's legs.

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, I've attended two events where gowns from designer's spring collections were showcased, and some of them were so elegant and beautiful, I look forward to seeing them on guests at galas.

I won't 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 event's co-chair, the fabulous and fashionable Midge Barron, has the right approach. For part of the evening she'll wear a long gown, and then she's changing into something shorter to dance in when the band starts playing.

“It's not what I'm going to wear,” she told me. “It's how many I'm going to wear.”

Follow Olivia on Twitter @oliviafortson
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