Rob’s Rules: Where to Wear

September 1, 2007


Featuring Rob Schaefer

Rob Schaefer, catering and event specialist, has been a freelance special event planner for more than 20 years. He is also a certified wedding coordinator by National Bridal Service. After his popular educational session, “Making Your Meetings Magical,” at MM&E’s 2007 St. Louis Regional Expo, Rob is now channeling his talents through yet another medium, writing. This featured column, Rob’s Rules, is meant to provide you with all the practical advice, tips and rules of engagement that you need in the meeting and event planning industry. If you have a question, whether it’s how to dress, how to address your guests or what to serve as the main course, email Rob at [email protected]. Your question might just inspire the topic of his next column!

As an event designer, one of the most common questions I am asked is, “What should I wear?” For many years, rules of etiquette clearly defined the standards of dress for work and social engagements and left no room for doubt. However, in an age of mass clothing production, a more casual society and lack of propriety, we assume that anything goes. It doesn’t!

Meeting planners of today are challenged with making their events different and out-of-the-box. With that, standards of dress for business and social occasions are being given creative new names that are often ambiguous and confusing. I believe that the key to success is clarity in communication. If you are planning an event, leave out the colorful phrases and be clear about dress code. If you have to put a spin on grammar, maybe enclose a separate card that defines the dress code more clearly. A follow up company e-mail with descriptions and examples can also be very effective – maybe throw in a picture or two. Your reputation is as much at stake as your guests’. Make sure your guests also communicate with their spouses or dates to assure that no starlets or showgirls are in the crowd. Having a master list with e-mails for your “What to Wear” e-mail blast can solve that problem. Posting a flyer in the company lunchroom or break room can also be effective. And be sure that you are up on the latest standards of dress. If you don’t know, neither will the guests.

The savvy professional knows that creating a positive self-image can improve career advancement. What you wear can make or break you as easily as what you do. Although we all want to be creative, stick to the basics and add your personality in small doses. Understanding what different attire categories mean can help take the guesswork out of deciding what to wear.

Ultra Black-Tie continues to be the most formal standard of social dress and is generally seen at formal weddings, events of state and balls. The traditional tuxedo with tails and all white accessories remains the standard for men. A white bow tie, vest, pleated shirt, black patent evening shoes and sometimes gloves are the only option for men at this type of event. A full length evening gown, evening shoes, evening bag, evening coat or wrap and sometimes gloves are required for ladies. The nature of this event calls for a more formal hairstyle than normally worn, and professional makeup application.

Black-Tie affairs require men to wear a black, square cut or double-breasted tuxedo with black accessories. Men should be in a formal white tuxedo shirt with a black bow tie or a white collared shirt and a long black matte satin tie. However, at many current black-tie events, men are now wearing a black tux shirt or collared shirt with a black tie or another monochromatic color scheme. Either a black cummerbund or vest is always appropriate. It is not acceptable for men to wear a suit to a black-tie affair. A white dinner jacket may be worn in the summer months or in a tropical climate as an alternative to your black jacket.

Ladies must wear a cocktail or full length evening dress with evening accessories and shoes. Leather “daytime” shoes are not acceptable at this type of event and it is important to remember that black-tie events call for more elegant and understated dresses and gowns. Avoid cliché “New Year’s Eve” or “Las Vegas” looks. Black is still the color of preference and a simple black dress can be transformed with the right accessories. Today we see evening dresses worn with no stockings in the summer. However, stockings are generally preferred at all black-tie events and are required in the winter months.

Creative Black-Tie allows for a more individualized look and creative freedom for the guest. The biggest mistake made with creative black tie is thinking that no tuxedo is required – it is. If the invitation reads black-tie, it means a tuxedo.

Men are still required to wear the traditional tuxedo jacket, not necessarily black, but without the traditional tuxedo shirt and tie. Accessories traditionally match the theme or nature of the event. For example, a country western event in Dallas would allow a western shirt, bolero tie and western boots to be worn with a tuxedo. Ladies might go for a more southwestern look with silver or turquoise accessories and boots. A safari-themed event might mean a white dinner jacket for men with a linen or collarless dress shirt and sandals. Ladies might wear a two-piece silk print pantsuit with sandals and carved wood jewelry.

Regardless of the theme, creative black-tie permits traditional black-tie to merge with current fashion trends. It was created to allow the guests to be a greater part of the “look” of the event and it is meant to relax the atmosphere.

Resort Chic refers to a more casual but elegant style of dressing commonly seen at high-end resorts and spas. It is a destination look and helps the guest “blend in” with the environment. Having attended events titled resort chic, I can tell you that it generally requires men to be in long pants and a short- or long-sleeve shirt. Fabrics are usually cotton, silk, linen or seersucker. Loafers and sandals are the normal foot apparel.

Hawaii and surrounding islands call for the quintessential pattern shirt and white pants. Ladies have a wide variety of styles to chose from and can incorporate more vibrant colors and patterns into their looks. But avoid the muumuu!

Resort Chic Evening indicates that a jacket is preferred for men in linen, cotton or seersucker, and a cocktail dress, resort inspired outfit or pant suit for ladies. Ladies can wear bolder accessories and often local flowers with their ensembles.

Resort Casual indicates that a short-sleeve polo shirt or button-up shirt with tailored shorts are acceptable. Bermuda length shorts or capri pants are the acceptable choice for ladies. However, resort casual still requires a clean and tailored look. At all costs avoid denim and “workout” apparel looks.

City Chic encompasses a wide variety of current fashion styles and varies from climate. We commonly see this metropolitan look for dinner out, dates and clubbing. A current look for men is a long-sleeve designer shirt untucked with high-end jeans and loafers or boots. Ladies vary from casual dresses, fitted tops paired with jeans and heels and leather looks. This is a hip, urban look that defines us and sends a definite message to the beholder. When in a strange city, all black or a black top with stylish jeans is usually your best bet. Have fun but maintain good taste.

Business Casual is probably the most misunderstood and poorly executed of all the apparel categories. Today, most companies who allow business casual have an enforced dress code policy in place. It is critical that you follow your company’s standards and I always recommend dressing a bit above those standards. I have seen both guests and planners look ridiculous and even get reprimanded over this look. Play it safe. As a general rule for men, business casual means polo shirts and short-sleeve shirts for summer. Pair those with Dockers-style or cargo pants. For winter, a wool or corduroy pant with a long-sleeve collared shirt, a sweater, or turtleneck is acceptable. A gentleman should always have a casual blazer available for pop-up meetings or an unexpected dinner engagement.

In spring and summer, ladies can wear a simple cotton or linen dress, a short-sleeve polo shirt, a short-sleeve button down or a short-sleeve fine gauge knit top or blouse. These are paired with pressed cotton trousers, capri pants or summer skirts ‒ knee length or lower. Winter months can include neutral sweaters, knit twin-sets, turtlenecks or long-sleeve blouses with wool pants, skirts or corduroy pants. Dress jeans, not weekend jeans, are acceptable if listed on the company dress code. Jeans with holes, distressed finishes or embellishments are never acceptable.

In the meeting and event industry, travel is often required. Having the right essential basics in your closet will make packing a breeze and guarantee you will always look appropriate. I always use black as a year-round neutral and khaki as a summer alternative. As a rule, I always try to buy tropical weight worsted wool suits, sport coats and trousers. They breathe well, keep their shape and travel beautifully. I prefer linen or seersucker fabrics in the summer and pack a lot of neutral basics. I can pair them with colorful accessories such as ties, T-shirts and jewelry. Here are my essentials to create stress-free packing and style success!

Rob’s Essentials for Men

1) A black 100% worsted wool tuxedo with evening shoes.

2) A black and khaki 100% tropical weight worsted wool suit.

3) A neutral 100% wool blazer with black/gray/blue or khaki tones.

4) Long-sleeve dress shirts in solid black, white and blue.

5) 100% wool or wool blend dress pants in black, gray and khaki.

6) Three silk ties to include a solid black matte satin, a gray/blue/black pattern and a khaki/olive/ivory pattern.

7) Three pairs of tailored shorts in black, khaki and white.

8) Three pairs casual dockers-style or cargo pants in black, khaki and olive.

9) Three polo shirts in black, blue and a neutral pattern.

10) Four pairs of shoes: a comfortable black dress shoe, a black loafer, a brown loafer and black or brown sandals.

Rob’s Essentials for Women

1) A full length, classic cut evening dress with evening shoes and wrap.

2) A simple but fun black cocktail dress and evening bag.

3) Two tailored wool suits in black and gray.

4) A neutral wool blazer and tailored wool skirt.

5) Three long-sleeve shirts or blouses in solid black, white and blue.

6) Three pairs of tailored dress pants in black, gray and khaki or taupe.

7) Black and khaki tailored shorts and black and khaki capri pants.

8) One black turtleneck, one neutral sweater and one knit twin set in a flattering color.

9) One casual summer or winter dress that can go from day to evening.

10) Comfortable black heels, comfortable black and brown loafers or flats, black or neutral sandals.

(Rob Schaefer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo. Please send your questions or comments to [email protected])

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