I intended to go to the Mercantile Library’s gala fundraiser this year. They had a good speaker for the annual Niehoff Lecture, I love the library and a lot of friends would be there. But I was a little worried about the “black tie” bit on the invitation.
I am not a black tie person. I do not live a black tie life. Its traditional requirements are a tuxedo and a floor-length evening gown, two items I can’t find anywhere in our closets. I believe jeans are the best item of clothing ever invented and sneakers with a wide toe box are the best footwear.
As it turns out, we were out of town for the date in question and couldn’t go. But I’ve been wondering what I would have worn. What does black tie even mean in the athleisure era? And why do we ever have to wear it, or otherwise worry about what we wear to the galas and charity balls and weddings that request it? Or really, why do I stand in front of the full-length mirror and try on a pile of different clothes, trying to get just the right thing to wear even if it’s just a backyard party?
“Dressing well is a form of good manners,” said designer Tom Ford, and that seems as good an explanation as any to start with. I was talking to Regina Russo for this column because she was the chair last year of one of the fanciest dressy events, the Cincinnati Opera gala. She said she was brought up to think of dressing appropriately as a form of respect. “Respect for the occasion, respect for the performers at an opera, say, respect for who you’re with.” Amy Hunter, who works on the event for the Mercantile, said “I think I behave a little better when I’m dressed up, don’t you?” I do, actually. I bring my party manners.
More elaborate, specific codes and rules about gloves for women and hats for men, dressing for dinner, opera hats and when to wear diamonds, were maybe a form of social control, a way to tell the social climbers from the old money, the nice girls from the not-nice. Good riddance to that.
But I think the “black tie” and “cocktail attire” and “semi-formal” that still exist are less about control, and paradoxically about permission. They say: “Wear your fanciest dress, the one with the sequins, the one that makes you feel like a movie star, and we promise you will not be overdressed. Go ahead and shine.”
Russo was the chair of 2022’s Operaganza. For an event like that, “black tie” is more about beautiful exuberance, artistic self-expression and glamor than it is about correctness or setting a fine line between overdressed or underdressed. “It’s about expressing yourself in a fun, elevated way,” Russo said. “Last year, people wore some of everything. There were bursts of color, velvet tuxedos, long opera gloves. The clothes expressed a full range of emotion, just like opera does.” She sees the event not just as a fundraiser, but an opportunity to create “a joyful and artistic community together.”
“But people have to be comfortable,” Russo said. “Organizations don’t want to create barriers for new people.” And when I look at photo galleries of events, I conclude that people will not be forced to wear anything they don’t want to. It’s not all ball gowns and tuxedos; some people seem to be dressing in inconspicuous black, others have on whatever is the nicest thing they own.
Russo tells a story of an older gentleman at the Cincinnati Art Museum, when she worked for them, looking at a younger man dressed in hipster shabby, and asking him “What are you saving the good stuff for?” What, indeed? Clothes may be a source of anxiety for lots of people, including me. I have spent my share in fitting rooms, feeling dark despair. But when I find the perfect pink silk blouse or embroidered jacket or swishy dress in purple, that wearable aesthetic experience keeps me going back.
I could certainly have pulled off the Mercantile event. “People understood the assignment pretty well,” Hunter said. As for me, I could only in my dreams carry off the beautiful Grecian-style draped dress in blue or the gold feather bodice with white pants, or pearl-encrusted sheath that more elegant women than I wore. But I certainly could have contrived to fit in. “We added ‘cocktail attire’ to the invitation,” Hunter said. “The men rebelled against tuxedos.” My husband dresses up nice in a dark suit, and I have a few shorter dresses that I don’t look too shabby in, comfortable and fairly elegant, with a piece of jewelry or a silk scarf over my shoulders.
I would have had fun. I tend to at parties, no matter what I’m wearing. And surely it helps to wear the fine clothes sometimes known as “glad rags.”
Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.