As Published in The Rye Record on April 3, 2015
A few weeks ago, before the thaw, I was invited to a dinner party and was told in plain English to wear a dress. Honestly, I was just as happy to have been told what to wear as I was to be going to a party. A dress! What could be easier? But when I arrived at the party, I found that I was in the wrong dress. It was too casual by several standard deviations, and I spent the evening with that middle school feeling that I didn’t quite fit in. The direction I needed was: cocktail dress, your best one.
I dream of a world where invitations come with visual aids, maybe a hologram or a little cartoon of exactly what the hostess is going to be wearing. Instead I find that we have a coded language of baffling phrases that is meant to guide us on the path to appropriateness. Navigating a party invitation can be like cracking The Di Vinci Code.
One phrase I don’t find helpful: Festive Casual Attire. What does that even mean? Like my black exercise pants and a sparkly top? My pajamas with a sombrero and some maracas? Same goes for City Chic. I rifle through my Suburban Frump closet for black things with grommets. I dab tobacco behind my ears and search the Internet to see what Nicole Ricci’s wearing. She too, apparently, is out of date.
(Dress to Impress is another puzzler that tells me nothing but the fact that I’m about to disappoint my hostess.)
Black Tie, I love. I have two things in two sizes. One bag goes with both, and I’m ready to go. Business Attire, on the other hand, bugs me on both a practical and philosophical level. There was a day when this was the easiest of all. I’d show up in whatever suit I’d been wearing all day and fit right in. Now it just makes me a little defensive about my “business.” What if you’re a welder or a stripper or a writer? I’m surprised there hasn’t been more outrage on this topic, like when the peach crayon used to be called “flesh.” Business Attire should really read: dress like a member of Congress. Though, to be honest, if I put on one of my old suits it would be more like: dress like a member of the cast of Dynasty.
Occasionally, the hostess won’t give you a dress code, but she will give you clues that will lead only the cleverest few of her guests to the right ensemble. Take Lawn Party, for example. I’ve learned this one the hard way. The first time I saw this cryptic phrase I took it to mean that I’d need a sweater. Incorrect! I can still recall the exact moment when my spiked heels started sinking into the grass, tilting me dangerously backward. Lawn Party, it turns out, means wear flat or wedged shoes. And bug spray. Would that have been so hard to say? The party was divided between the cryptologists and those whose heels were stuck in the lawn like golf tees.
It’s all very subtle and probably a little bit graceful. Nobody wants to come across as bossing around her guests. But would it ruin the mystery to say: Come for summer cocktails! Everyone’s going to be in white pants and a colorful top? Or, better: Come for dinner. Wear your black dress. Not the one with the lace around the neck, that’s going to make you look like you’re trying too hard, but it’s okay to wear your new favorite super-high shoes because we’ll mostly be sitting. I’d be so grateful.