DEAR MISS MANNERS: I realize that I am a dinosaur, but I am very confused by these new references to dress. We were invited to a dinner dance beginning at 6:30 p.m. The invitation said "cocktail attire." My husband was dismayed to be the only man in attendance in a tuxedo.
Back in the day, that would certainly have been the proper attire for the event, but clearly we were mistaken. In fact, there were many men there in casual sport coats. The ladies were in everything from suits to elegant long dresses.
I think I have figured out "business attire" but am uncertain about "business casual," and obviously ignorant of "cocktail attire."
We are invited to a 6 p.m. wedding in a church (formal, black-ink invitation), and my husband says he is taking no chances and wearing a dark suit rather than his tuxedo. What is the proper dress, and how does one go about finding out what is customary? I thought I knew!
GENTLE READER: Back in the day when there was a sensible understanding of clothing is so long ago that this entire party seems to have been in a state of confusion. Miss Manners hopes that is of some consolation to your husband.
What the poor hosts meant was that you should dress up, but not to the extent of wearing what is now considered full evening dress.
Oh, dear. Nobody is clear about that term, either.
Let us go back a bit more than you probably intended, about a hundred years. In what was then called society, another term that has become meaningless (and was rather silly even then), people wore evening clothes in the evening. It didn't take a lot of agonizing to figure that one out -- evening, evening clothes; daytime, day clothes -- so no instructions were necessary.
But problems were arising. Evening clothes had meant white tie and tails for gentlemen, and long dresses with low necklines for ladies. But even before the turn of the century, the so-called tuxedo (a word still spurned by the fastidious, who say "dinner jacket") was invented as a tail-less alternative, and more and more young bucks were adopting it. So hosts had to specify white tie, black tie or informal, which meant dark suits for the gentlemen.
Soon to come were the Little Black Dress and -- the cocktail party! Traditionalists were reeling.
But by the mid-20th century, things had more or less settled down. Tails and dinner jackets, known as white tie and black tie respectively, became different degrees of evening formality, so invitations specified which one.
Ladies wore long dresses with either, but because neither they nor the gentlemen should wear evening dress before night, they needed dressy short dresses for that wild new form of entertaining that began in late afternoon, the cocktail party. Nowadays, cocktail parties are not the dashing events they once were, and what people actually wear is their office clothes during the week and sports clothes on the weekend.
Oops, there's another misleading term. "Sports clothes" in this sense are not what one wears to play sports, but tailored trousers and open shirts or sweaters -- or what may be meant by "business casual."
As to that 6 p.m. wedding, your husband is right about wearing a dark suit. If it doesn't say black tie, it isn't.