Dressing Up for Dudes

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!

51 thoughts on “Dressing Up for Dudes

  1. You ran the table, dude. I dislike the event circuit, but need to be in it from time to time. Being dressed properly makes it far more bearable.

  2. I am so incredibly glad I am not married to you. I’d rather eat shark meat than gala it up a lot. I am happy for you though, that you have it down to a science. Unfortunately, I have also been to enough of these events to know how to play, and yes, it is tricky. Less the last few years -thank goodness!

    • U2: We’re middle class too . . . this stuff isn’t for pleasure, it’s for business. I’m all about sitting out in the hot tub with friends when it’s personal time, not work time!

      Teri: Re: I am so incredibly glad I am not married to you. You and several million other women . . . I pinch myself regularly that there’s one in the world who actually seems to LIKE this concept.

      Freddie: You’re right . . . I forgot to include a category on “Bethlehem Informal” . . . you rock those creased jeans, dude!!!

      Don: Amen.

  3. I wonder if we still have Dad’s “suit of Lights”? Do you remember it?…it would be appropriate for any event. I will see if I can find it for you.
    Love you, Mom

    • Paige: Yeah, these are New York rules, definitely. Bucks and seersucker are appropriate for everything once you hit the Low Country.

      Tony: I golf in a panama hat, since I hate baseball caps. Stylin’.

      Dan: I was actually thinking this morning that I’d forgotten to mention the shoes, so good catch. Shine ’em, too, dudes.

      All: The Suit of Lights was a thing to behold, for sure . . . a classic garment from a terrible fashion era, the 1970s. If you have photos, Mom, we need to share them!

  4. “While I would never be a fashion bully and publicly mock or deride anyone’s sartorial choices for such events…”
    You can go to a couple other TU blogs for that 😉
    So all of us guys thank you for restating the obvious. Men don’t have the “perfect little black cocktail dress” that goes with any event.
    But again, you can go to a couple other TU blogs for that, too 😉

  5. Freddie: you DO have a formal panama hat don’t you?
    I bought a suit last year, my first since the 80’s(my wife wouldn’t let me wear my white linen one, with the sleeves rolled up, to a funeral) and I was surprised how the salesmen jumped up to help me.I flet like Pretty Woman. Then I got to the register……I should have bought a tux. Of course the only kinds of Parties I get invited to, are the ones where I bring the chili, so I guess I’m safe with my black pants, black shirt and black tee shirt under neath.

  6. oh “Mom” – picture please

    JES – do you teach a non-credit, show and tell at school for those boys? You could have alot of fun with that – and not just for the MBA’s – UG’s too

  7. IMO, you should have a conversion chart for people going to dinners on a Carnival Cruise where you drop everything down three levels.

  8. Good job, and great advice! I own a tux, even though I have only worm it a few times, it does come in handy. And buy good shoes to go with it too. Nothing ruins good dressing as much as crappy shoes. Most guys don’t realize this, but people always look at your shoes!

  9. I used to work at the Glen Sander’s mansion and it was always interesting to me to see if anyone was more casual than the rest of the guests. I worked a lot of cocktail parties, etc. and I will say, the fancier the outfit, the LESS people want to eat.

  10. Ahhh, the pool party. At my first “real,” post-collegiate job, the boss decided a summer party at the lake on his boat would make for a swell employee get-together.

    Once said boss’s secretary appeared in a bikini that left little to the imagination, it officially became the most uncomfortable work-related event I have attended to this day. Your colleague’s insight was, indeed, wise and profound.

    And I am sure I am not the only one hoping your mother will be forwarding a photo of the “suit of lights” for you to share!

  11. Mott The Hoople!!!! LOVE this post Eric. But don’t you mean “They couldn’t care less”??? – not “They could care less”???

  12. I guess the formative years in Pitt County warped my sense of dress. The coastal bucks and navy blazer are my go-to’s for anything fancier than steaks on the grill.

    A friend of mine from my wild post-collegiate days married the charming daughter of a Westchester real estate magnate at the Waldorf-Astoria; black tie. Our Gang hooted and decided to gussy up the ol’ tuxes. I wore a brand new pair of black high-top Chuck Taylors, another guy wore red leopard pants, and the third wore a frilly pastel 70s shirt. Thank God the bride’s Uncle Murray was also a sport, with his Hawaiian print bow tie and cummerbund. Otherwise I think we would have been tossed out to cadge a burger and Steak n Brew.

  13. The thought of a work-related pool party makes me want to puke all over. Do these events exist? I mean, maybe if you happened to work with all of your best friends, or at a summer camp, or at a… pool. But otherwise, never.

  14. Man, I am so out of your league that I can’t even comprehend having to worry about this but it was refreshing to see advice for dudes for a change. And you are one classy one.

    Still, there are some advantages to poverty… Yes, I said it and I meant it. They may be few and far between but they exist. (Mainly, in the things that will never be expected of you.)

    I don’t care how blue collar the job though. I still utterly agree with the sentiment that coworkers should never, ever see each other in beachwear.

    Gman, I once did get thrown out of the Waldorf. My friend and I went on a Christmas bus trip to NYC back in 1977. She wanted to scope out the Waldorf for celebs; I rolled my eyes and followed along but was duly impressed with all the charming lights and decor they had. We walked in on some private show or something in one of the ballrooms. An usher came up to us and said, “ladies, I believe this will point you the way out” with a courtly bow and a hand indicating the door. It was way to classy to argue with or take offense at but I stopped and took pictures of the decorations on the way out. Hey, I was only 19.

  15. Christine: I’ve been to a few work-related pool parties . . . a garden party is a nice way to do a fundraiser for a small community-based nonprofit, but, unfortunately, sometimes if the host or hostess has a pool, they feel compelled to include such information on the invitation, which dramatically changes the tone of the event, because SOMEONE (usually a dude) will end up in the pool, before beaching himself like a rotten whale shark on a chaise lounge somewhere . . .

    Donna: This was all learned out of necessity . . . I certainly am not fancy by upbringing or inclination, believe me.

    Naomi: Everything’s better with Mott.

    G: I guarantee you that the Dad had to think real hard about whether he could get away with throwing out Uncle Murray . . .

  16. Lola: I dunno, women usually seem to GET these sorts of things better than dudes do . . . my wife always looks perfect at every one of these events that we attend, and she’s got a whole lot more choices and variations than I do, so I’m not sure how it all happens, since there are so many other gradations and considerations for women’s attire. I ultimately ascribe it all to magic and just appreciate the fact that her looking so good makes me look good too!

  17. I want to send this to my husband. He thinks I’m just making things up(or being an uppity bitch)when I tell him there is such a thing as “appropriate” attire when attending work functions/fund raisers, etc with his lawyer wife. He thinks no one cares but me. Its really the only thing we fight over as a couple.

    • KimV: I’m the husband of a lawyer, too, and have spent much of my post-government career in the nonprofit fundraising/development world, so I had no choice at all but to figure this all out if I wanted to be successful in either capacity!!

  18. Great advice.

    I do think a female version is needed. Far too many women figure than anything “dressy” means “show cleavage” and “formal” means “show more cleavage.”

  19. Great read! Thanks for the heads up. Now if only I can somehow manage to only be invited to one white-tie event in my lifetime, I can at least die with one kidney.

  20. Joeshow: Unless your surname really is Von Habsburg de la Salle Saxe-Coburg-Windsor, then you’re likely to die with a kidney. Dodging a White Tie event is generally a once-in-a-lifetime effort . . .

  21. As a Realtor, dressing for success has really helped increase my business! Regardless of what business you’re in, dress the part.

  22. Yet another surprising post from you, J. Eric Smith. Great advice but the bow tie is a bit boring.

    Would you be willing to talk to my husband about wearing shorts when the temperature is less than 65 degrees? He manages to dress appropriately for the formal affairs, but I can get him to lose the frat boy habit of wearing shorts out of season.

    • Scott: Great point on Business Casual, and I think you are right in that there are two levels to it . . . if your company has “Casual Friday” in the workplace, then, to me, that’s casual. (And I say that sitting here in a pair of black cotton slacks with a collared short-sleeve polo shirt on, getting ready to head to work, which is “Business Casual” in the summertime). But if you are going to an out-of-the-ordinary event/gala type thing, then I would definitely step it up to Informal, per the “not worst dressed” rule. The boss rule is valid too . . . so the goal is to dress for success long enough to BECOME the boss!!!

      MomTo: As my own mom notes, I’m the WRONG GUY to provide guidance on shorts . . . . I wear them year round, often with sweaters, and only put shoes on when I have to. There’s a whole ‘nother layer of dress code called Slugwear, but that should be best be saved for an article called “Dressing DOWN for Dudes.” And, yes, There Will Be Shorts.

      Anthony: Thanks for thoughtful comment, glad the post resonated with you. You know where I’ll come when the current Tux needs an upgrade!

  23. I love this. Every guy should print it out and hang it in his closet. You did, however, omit the dreaded “Business Casual” which as far as I can tell is somewhere between Informal and Casual.

    It is also worth mentioning that there is a corollary to not wanting to be the worst dressed dude, and that is “don’t show up the boss.” If your boss, or his boss, shows up in a a polo shirt, quickly and quietly ditch the jacket and tie. I have a colleague who insists on wearing suits all the time, and it makes the boss uncomfortable when people being her the check.

  24. Bravo Eric!!!! from the guy you bought a tuxedo a few years back and who makes his living selling formalwear I applaud your giving a lost generation direction. Currently there is a debate which has been raging on in the formalwear world spilling over on the national scene in an online wedding newsletter with several sources chiming in about the fate of the tuxedo. I’m going to share your article with them. If you get invited to a white tie I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity, because you are likely to be at the White House, on Royal grounds where you will have a chance to meet a Duke,Baroness, Earl or Princess you get the point or some other event where Hollywood is actually stepping up the game. As always, thank you for your imparting your wisdom, this has a deeper impact in our society, economy and mindset than people realize. By the way you are about due for a new tux. Respectfully Anthony from Tuxego in Latham

  25. momto1….you are asking the wrong person about the shorts issue…my boy, Eric, is most often at home, year round in shorts, and barefoot!

    I do not have a picture of Dad in his suit of lights…I gave him such a hard time about it…that it disappeared quickly. It was in the 70’s when polyester was at its peak..and he hated poly….so he found this wonderful wool suit, that had bold checks,and I mean BOLD.He actually named it “the suit of lights”, as it was quite the fashion statement, and as you know Dad was always very fussy about his wardrobe. We too had to attend many various functions, where one had to be dressed appropriately…and much of the time in dress uniform. I think he just had a weak moment when he spied the SOL, and wanted so desperately to say, THIS IS WHAT GOOD FABRIC IS ALL ABOUT”….He definately made a statement and thankfully it was short lived. He went back to his weejuns, button down collars, and classic, sport coat and kakhis……………after he rearranged his closet, by item, color and length, for the 1000th time.
    Love you, Mom

  26. The minute anyone claims to know how to educate others on how to dress is the moment I die inside.

    “A cream or blue shirt with a conservative tie, perhaps a paisley or solid”? Seriously? That’s like saying, “Hey, I’m dumb and have been told to dress by some old hetero guy on a blog.”

    The rules of fashion are non-existent— in a sense. The traditions of each of these events still exist, but personal style and approach are not rigid case systems, and should not be dampened by someone else’s ideas of what’s appropriate or fashionable. If I wore a cream shirt and a paisley tie to an event, I would feel like a schmuck and look like one as well. It’s not my personality, not my style. Perhaps more boring men can work that and get lost in the crowd.

    Why can’t you give these rules but tell men, heterosexual men in particular, that they have freedom when making these choices. Fabric textures, colors, patterns, linens, cottons, silks, etc? Consult a real fashion powerhouse, such as GQ, for procedural rules of mixing patterns and colors?

    If we allow ourselves to live like this, stringently adhering to rules of someone else’s design, we will all look like stuffed sheep. Social structure can exist without denying personal style. Who’s to say that a deep purple dress shirt with a cross-grain linen tie can’t be just as fabulous as a cream J.Crew shirt and paisley tie?

    No one.

    • Hey Joey: I think you’re taking this a bit more seriously than I intended it . . . read it with your “humor filter” turned on, take two aspirin, and call me in the morning. If it still makes you so angry, then I guess I’m not as amusing as I thought I was, and I really should have given up that kidney rather than having embarrassed myself at a white tie event. Have a nice day.

  27. P.S. to Joey: The hetero stereotypy is obnoxious, by the way. I do understand and appreciate differences in fabrics and colors in my own wardrobe, I don’t own a single item of J. Crew clothing (I prefer Hart Schaffner Marx), and I do a helluva job buying fabulous clothes and accessories for the women in my life, thank you very much.

  28. J. Eric Smith– while yes, the hetero stereotypy is obnoxious, you set it up as the conceit for your entire blog. Who dresses like the men you describe above? Straight men. And, to your credit, closeted men who try to fit in.

    I’m not taking it too seriously myself, but there is a severe problem of fashion illiteracy in this country, this area in particular, and many guys will take your work at face value. Which would leave us with a clone-like drove of khaki-wearing, polo-clad frat brothers binge drinking at a work picnic. Not a pretty picture, eh?

    • You obviously have a very strong sense of personal style, Joey, which is great . . . but not everyone else does. I was the Director of Development and Public Relations for the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York for three years, and ran their events at Saratoga and the annual Wine Tasting Gala, among other things, and, yes, I was, without doubt, generally the most conservatively dressed man at any of those events, because that’s what works for me and looks good on me . . . though the quality and taste of the clothing surrounding me was usually exquisitely eclectic, original and strongly individualized.

      These days, though, I work on a college campus, and while some of the male students here are fashion savvy, most of them aren’t. I sort of had them in mind as I was penning this, hence the references to dudes and beer and the Board President’s charming daughter . . . because I have been at events or interviews where nobody’s bothered to explain dress expectations, and they’ve been mortified when they realize how wrong they got it.

      I think you might have skipped what I consider to be the most important part of this post . . . . about how “and the way that you, yourself, will feel about your experience at the event. [This] piece is the most important one.”

      If you choose to dress “to code” and feel good about yourself, great! If you choose to push the fashion envelope and feel good about yourself, great! The main thing is . . . I hate to see anybody having their experience of what could be a fabulous event marred because they feel bad about the way they look . . . and if they have no strong, innate, or trained sense of those social norms and styles, then they’re probably better off sticking with the conservative norms to start, then learning by observation at the events as to how they might branch out in different directions as they gain more confidence.

      Again, though, at bottom line, this was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek satire of the sorts of lifestyle/fashion blogging in which I don’t usually dabble, with some small kernels of practical advice buried beneath the conceit.

  29. Having worn linen shorts and gladiator sandals to my graduation, amidst a sea of khakis, loafers and pinstripe shirts, I’ve learned to just ignore the crowds and search for my own identity while dressed for formal events. Which, I hope I’m getting at, is what I think fashion for men should be.

    I went to Union, and the norms there were sweatpants for 90 percent of events, and New England prep school uniform for the other 10% of events. It’s disheartening to see it everywhere I go. So, it was a bit sad to see you sort of advocating for that (in a way) but I get what you’re saying, and our theses are running pretty parallel.

    I just REALLY dislike paisley.

    • Understood, agreed and appreciated, Joey . . . except on the paisley front, since I like it, although I have to admit to being something of a paisley snob: it’s very, very hard to find what I consider to be good paisley ties anymore, as they’ve sort of been lowest-common-denominatored into paisley-light, or paisley-simple, without the elaborate textures and structures of the Iranian/Central Asian fabrics from which they were originally crafted. I actually don’t have what I consider to be a workable paisley tie in my collection at this point, though I keep on the lookout for good ones when I shop . . . hence my coded referral to “classic paisley.”

  30. Disgusted: That’s a tough one . . . and beyond saying “something respectful of the gravity of the event and the faith traditions of those observing it,” it’s probably one best left to the experts!!!

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