DEAR MISS MANNERS: Every New Year's Eve, my family and I receive friends and acquaintances at a formal (dinner jacket) party.
A few ladies come dressed in trousers. When once I was asked my preference as to how a lady should be dressed for such occasion, and I responded "dressed with a skirt," the person called my decision one worthy of a dinosaur.
May I ask, please, is there a formula to indicate how a lady should be attired?
GENTLE READER: What you are asking for is trouble.
Mind you, Miss Manners thoroughly agrees that it is a shame that many ladies no longer really dress up, even for gala occasions.
She has noticed an odd trend in the last decade or so. It used to be that gentlemen groused about wearing dinner jackets and tried to get away with less, or with some funny variation, while ladies wore serious evening dresses. Now she still sees unmatched couples, but more often the gentlemen in conventional evening dress, while the ladies are austerely attired in plain black silk trousers with perhaps a bright jacket.
This is perhaps a skewered view, because Miss Manners is speaking of private formal dinners and parties, not charity balls honoring some designer, and not award ceremonies. But she sees that even among those few who still have some formality in their lives -- and who would not therefore consider it a one-time waste to invest in evening clothes.
For that matter, orchestras commonly comprise properly dressed males while the females, for whom one black dress (or, for cellists, perhaps the festive trousers known as palazzo pajamas) would be a working uniform, wear informal black outfits.
Miss Manners recognizes that life has been getting increasingly informal. Nevertheless, she notices that the resulting hunger for more style -- or just an occasional change -- breaks out at proms and weddings, often with peculiar results.
So she is in sympathy with your wish. All the same, she knows that indignation and derision are the inevitable reactions to any attempt to discuss, let alone mandate, dress.
Changing fashion, comfort and self-expression will all be cited, and Miss Manners does not deny that these are factors worthy of consideration. But it is not that hard to satisfy all three within the different general standards that apply to different occasions. That Miss Manners happens to prefer skirts to trousers does not prevent her from looking suitably informal (not to mention fetching) at picnics.
Nevertheless, issuing any directive other than the conventional "Black tie" (or "White tie") will just annoy people, who will ignore it anyway.