Dress code: Head-scratchingly casual

If the Stuff White People Like blog doesn't have an entry for "cutesy, baffling dress codes" yet, it's about time.

Published August 29, 2008 4:55PM (EDT)

If the folks over at Stuff White People Like don't yet have an entry for "cutesy, baffling dress codes," it's about time they got one. In the past few years, I've received party invitations with exhortations to dress "smart casual," "beachy casual" and "Western casual," and according to the Wall Street Journal, those are some of the mildest examples. "It's no longer unusual to receive an invitation prescribing a dress code of 'wild chic,' 'beach formal,' 'resort dressy,' 'international,' 'festive,' 'creative black tie' or 'safari chic.'"

"International"? Seriously? I have a strong feeling my boyfriend and I would be out of place at that party if we showed up in lederhosen and a sari, but I can't imagine what they're actually going for there. Between that and "safari chic" -- and even "Western casual" at a party in Nova Scotia (thrown by Albertans, but still) -- I'm just waiting for the invite that says "festive cultural appropriation" along the bottom.

The WSJ article says there's a burgeoning backlash against this trend, since event planners and brides are getting sick of fielding a thousand "What the hell does this mean?" phone calls. But then, even old standbys like "black tie" can cause their share of confusion. When I got invited to a black-tie wedding a few years ago, the bride told me, "Just wear a cocktail dress," and nearly hung up on me when I mentioned the word "pantyhose." "Nobody wears pantyhose anymore, are you crazy?" Houston socialite Becca Cason Thrash, one of the subjects of the article, recently tried to circumvent this less formal interpretation of the term by sending out Save the Date cards that said "high black tie," but that led to the aforementioned "What the hell?" phone calls, so she scrapped the "high" on the invitation. To her dismay, "some women showed up at the gala in short dresses and pantsuits." (My kneejerk reaction to that was, "Well, why didn't she say 'white tie'?" -- but would that even make a difference these days?)

It may just be time to admit that dress codes don't really work anymore. Too many people don't know or don't care what "black tie," "white tie" and "cocktail attire" mean, much less "international" and "wild chic." And really, should they? I've got more than a touch of the control freak in me, and I love playing dress-up more than drag queens, kindergartners and Sarah Hepola combined, so part of me does mourn the loss of the meaningful dress code. But aren't the etiquette mavens always saying that the ultimate point of etiquette is to make other people comfortable? If that's true, then shouldn't demanding that your friends dress in Hawaiian prints or ballgowns be considered the ultimate etiquette violation?

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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