DEAR HARRIETTE: I was invited to a formal event, and I am not sure of what to wear. I went to a formal affair last year, and I went out and bought a long gown because I thought that was the implied dress code, but when I got to the event, I felt overdressed. Most of the women had on cocktail dresses, and few men had on tuxedos. I know that a few years ago, formal meant dressed up like that. I don't know what to think today. What should I wear? -- The New Formal, Los Angeles
DEAR THE NEW FORMAL: Dress codes have relaxed pretty substantially over time such that even the notion of a formal event's dress code has become a question. You are right that formal once meant long dresses and tuxedos. Formal once was synonymous with black-tie. These days, formal has relaxed to include long gowns and also cocktail dresses.
When in doubt, ask your host. Rather than being unsure about what is expected at this event, contact the host or event planner and ask.