As a nonprofit executive, I get invited to — and attend — a lot of balls, galas, outings, cocktail receptions, award dinners, receptions and other such events that are generally designed to serve as fund-raisers and friend-raisers for my own and other nonprofit organizations. And as much as I dislike fashion for fashion’s sake, or rules for conventional behavior, I’ve begrudgingly come to realize over the years that appropriate attire is really crucial to comfortably participating in and enjoying these sorts of events.
While I would never be a fashion bully and publicly mock or deride anyone’s sartorial choices for such events, I can tell you that making the wrong choice will impact the way you are received, the way in which folks view your participation in the benefiting organization’s social hierarchy, and the way that you, yourself, will feel about your experience at the event. The third piece is the most important one.
I’ve learned this lesson the hard way over the years, believe me, and I’ve watched many younger, less-experienced dudes writhing in karmic distress through a variety of different work events, all because they didn’t come dressed properly, and they knew it. So it occurs to me that I should share some of my acquired wisdom with all the young dudes who may be making their first forays into these sorts of shindigs. Because with just a few basic rules, you can feel perfectly comfortable in whatever setting you find yourself, just by properly decoding the dress cues presented in the event’s invitation.
See, there’s the first rule, right there: never, ever, EVER go to an event without you, with your own little eyeballs, having actually seen the physical invitation to the event. Do not depend on your friend when he says “Oh, yeah, I think it said that it was, like, informal, or something… dude! There will be beer there!! Excellent!!! [insert high five sounds here].” This is a recipe for disaster. By the same token, do not call the venue hosting the event hours before it gets underway and ask the staff there what you should wear. They couldn’t care less if you’re humiliated, seeing as how you’re dumb enough to call and bother them with such an absurd question while they are working hard to get ready to knock your socks off later in the day, so they’re highly likely to tell you that the dress code is “Clown Suit (Nose Optional).” If you can’t see the invitation, or if you (or your date) didn’t get an invitation, then you don’t need to go to the event. Period.
All of the other important rules for dudes dressing up at events hinge on knowing what to do when you see a certain dress code on the printed, physical invitation. Here’s the general run down:
If the Invitation Says: White Tie.
What You Do: You schedule surgery for that afternoon to donate a kidney to a stranger, and regretfully pass on the event. Unless your surname is Von Habsburg de la Salle Saxe-Coburg-Windsor, or unless you have spent at least a decade undergoing intensive training at the Department of State’s Protocol Division, then you should never, under any circumstances, ever attend a White Tie event. No matter what you do here, and no matter what you wear here, it will be wrong, and you will end up as the prime topic of bawdy laughter and conversation over brandy and cigars at the Fox Hunting Lodge for months and months to follow. Trust me, it’s worth sacrificing a kidney to miss one of these things.
If the Invitation Says: Black Tie.
What You Do: You wear a tuxedo, ideally a classic, simple, elegant one with a bow tie and a conventional trouser and coat cut that will serve you in good stead for the rest of your life. Yes, you should own this tux. They are surprisingly affordable, they come with adjustable waistbands, and they are easily tailored if need be. You will feel much more confident and comfortable at events if you show up in your own clothing, rather than having to wonder and worry about how many other dudes’ junk had previously touched the irregularly tailored fabric that’s chafing you in the crotch of your rental tux, while you try to make suave conversation with the Board President’s charming daughter. If you’re getting invited to these sorts of events, then you’re a big boy now. And big boys own their own tuxedos.
If the Invitation Says: Black Tie (Optional).
What You Do: You wear your tuxedo again, because another key rule to always observe is that you never want to be the worst dressed dude at an event. At black tie (optional) events, all the dudes in their own tuxes, and even the ones in rented tuxes, will ooze superiority hormones all over the room, which will chemically neuter the dudes not wearing tuxes. The Board President’s charming daughter will notice this fact.
If the Invitation Says: Formal.
What You Do: You wear a dark-colored business suit, with a cream or blue collared shirt and a conservative tie, either a classic paisley pattern, or stripes, or a bright solid. This is not the place to rock your tie with the pictures of fish or the poker-playing dogs on it. Don’t wear a light grey, charcoal, cream, white or tan suit either, as you will appear to be less well dressed than the other dudes (even if the suit is a nice one), and, as above, you never want to be the worst dressed dude at an event. Basically, at a formal event (as Americans define it; if this event is in Switzerland, then you’re on your own, sorry I can’t help you), you want to wear something that’s basically almost a tuxedo, only with pinstripes on the fabric, and without the cummerbund and the pleated shirt front.
If the Invitation Says: Informal (also known as “Business Casual”)
What You Do: Oh, this is a treacherous one, because, as a dude, the word “informal” makes you think about things like shorts, flip flops, and a beer koozie on a string around your neck. But, no! Trickery, trickery! They are trying to catch you with this one, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, and the guys who get to talk to the Board President’s charming daughter from the guys who get mistaken for the help, and asked to bus tables! So pay close attention here: for an informal event, you wear slacks, a collared shirt, a sport coat or blazer, and a tie, though you can be a little bit more fun in your neck-wear selection at these sorts of events than you can at a formal. If you get there and the other dudes aren’t wearing ties, then you can open your top button and loosen your double windsor, to give you that air of busy executive who just cruised straight into the shindig after a tough day of negotiating big deals for big bucks, all without breaking a sweat. As always: never be the worst dressed dude at the party.
If the Invitation Says: Casual.
What You Do: Nope, you still can’t wear your shorts and bring your beer bong, since these are public events, likely with coworkers and other professional people doing their jobs, and none of them will appreciate you pulling a keg stand while they try to pass the cocktail shrimps. Khakis and a collared shirt work well at these sorts of events, and this is the first level where you can go with short sleeves, if you’ve got the arms to pull them off. Jeans remain a no-no, as do sneakers. It’s not your fraternity house, yo. It’s a fundraiser! These rules generally work for golf outings as well: if you show up in golf slacks, you will always out-class the dudes who show up in shorts, and you will increase your odds of being placed in a foursome with the Board President’s charming daughter. Once again: never be the worst dressed dude at the event.
If the Invitation Says: Pool Party.
What You Do: I had a work colleague years ago who shared a piece of wisdom that’s stuck with me ever since as wise and profound: coworkers and professional colleagues should never see each other in their bathing suits, ever, under any circumstances. This is true for events of the variety we’re discussing here, too. You can wear shorts and a t-shirt to the party, and deck shoes always look smart, but resist, at all costs, the urge to pull off your shirt, flex your muscles, point out your “Ants Marching” and “Dancing Bears” tattoos, and do your patented cannonball maneuver with the jackknife kick into the pool. It’s far classier to keep your clothing on and cruise the pool deck with a tasteful drink in hand, the better to chat up the Board President’s charming daughter as she holds court in the Gazebo.
See? That’s not so hard, is it? Follow these rules at public fundraising events, and I guarantee you that you will never find yourself embarrassed or uncomfortable or awkward. Well, anymore than you are naturally, anyway. Party on, dudes! Kick ass! Be excellent! Buy a tux!