Evening wear for dummies

By Robyn Cooke, Personal Stylist
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Article By: Robyn Cooke, Personal Stylist
My guide to smart-casual has sorted out around 80 percent of all the events and activities that you will undertake in the coming months as we start the long build up to the party season at the end of the year.

The balance of your events will either require a totally casual look — which is very easy to achieve with a few t-shirts, some shorts or jeans — or the much more difficult evening wear!

When your friends, business associates or family decide that a special occasion requires evening dress, it is extremely bad form to ignore this dress code.

By going against the requested dress code, not only will you feel out of place for most of the evening but you will also be making a statement. A statement is for rebellious teenagers and political protest; it's not for a loved one's special day. So don't do it folks.

Evening dress is actually pretty simple to crack. There are three variations, and each has some basic guidelines, which I outline for you here.

White tie/formal
The most formal of all the dress codes, 'white tie' can also be referred to as 'formal' on the event invitation.

For the evening version of the 'white tie' or 'formal' dress code ladies are required to wear ball gowns and the gentlemen to be in tails.

These events are usually for the international opening nights of the ballet or opera, Royal events (should you be invited to them), or charity balls, which is the one that we come across most frequently here in South Africa.

Ladies white tie
Ladies, your dress should be long and preferably full length, which means that it sweeps the floor. The very shortest that it can be is ballerina length which is to the ankle.

The skirt of your dress is conventionally full, with some under-skirt support, although latterly it has become acceptable to wear a straighter skirt.

Appropriate fabrics for your dress include taffeta, silk and velvet, with trims in pearls, beading, antique lace and sequins. This season feathers are also very fashionable for trimming.

Shoes should match your dress, if not in colour and fabric, at least in level of formality. A delicate touch is appropriate for shoes. The very young ladies can wear a satin ballet flat with matching trimming. Bags should be clutch style and jewellery should be your very best family heirlooms, with a tiara acceptable for married ladies.

Satin, opera length, gloves can be co-ordinated to your dress, but must be kept on at all times except when dining.

Gentlemen white tie
Chaps have a much stricter set of rules to follow with 'white tie'. Your jacket is a swallow-tail coat, with the horizontal cut away front, reaching to your waist in front and the back of your knees at the rear. It is not designed to do up. It is always black and has silk facings. It must cover your trouser waistband and bottom edge of your waistcoat. Your tie is white pique bow tie and it matches with your waistcoat of the same fabric, usually.

Your trousers are black and have the two satin seams running down the outside leg. They should have a fish-tail back as they are usually worn with braces. A white cotton shirt with wing collar is traditionally worn. Remember that shoes are lace-up and preferably in black patent, with no decorations. Socks are, of course, black.

Military mess uniforms and traditional national dress, including the Scottish kilt if you have a claim to the tartan, is absolutely acceptable for formal occasions.

Black tie or semi-formal
In South Africa it is far more common for smart occasions, like matric dances, to have black tie or semi-formal as the stipulated dress code. This is a little bit less stuffy than the formal dress code and there is opportunity for more self expression and fashion.

It is a dress code generally used for smart parties, celebratory dances, weddings and public dinners. It means a dinner jacket for the chaps and evening gowns for the ladies. It is only ever worn after six o' clock in the evening.

Ladies black tie
Ladies should always wear a dress that is longer in length. This can range from ballerina length at the ankle, up through to tea length which is mid-calf, or at the very shortest just below the knee. No gown for a black-tie event should be above the knee. The more conservative the host, the longer the length of the dress, is a good rule of thumb.

The best fabric choices are silk, satin, velvet and chiffon and should be comfortable for dancing. Trimming is still important and beading and sequins are the most popular.

Accessories should suit your dress, and your best jewellery should be worn. No hats, tiaras, gloves or capes are appropriate for semi-formal.

Gentlemen black tie
Chaps should always wear a black or midnight blue wool suit. The jacket can be double- or single-breasted, but has no rear vents. The lapels should be satin or grosgrain and peaked — although a shawl collar is also good on a single-breasted jacket.

A black silk satin bow tie is hand tied under the stiff collar of your white Marcella, pique or pleated front shirt with double cuffs. Your trousers have a single satin seam running down the outside leg and have no turn ups or belt loops.

It is traditional to wear either a waistcoat or a cummerbund with your black tie. It is more fashionable these days to go with the waistcoat, which should be black and low-cut. If you must wear a cummerbund, make sure that the pleats are facing upward and that it is black — don't be tempted by colour. Shoes and socks are as per white tie.

Good alternatives for less conservative hosts include a black slim tie instead of the bow tie, or a black shirt and tie combination. Do not wear a waistcoat or cummerbund for either of these less formal options.

Lounge suit or cocktail dress/informal
This is the most fun and relaxed of the evening dress codes, and requires both men and women to make an effort, but to turn up the glam factor. Chaps would largely wear dark suits and ladies cocktail dresses and this is sometimes referred to on the invitation as 'informal dress'. Even though it is not informal at all!

Ladies cocktail dress
Ladies should wear a cocktail gown or 'dancing costume' for these events. Basically it is a fun dress that sits anywhere from an inch above the knee to around two inches below the knee, depending on what suits your figure best.

Fabrics should be rich and fun, like silk and chiffon, and the only thing holding you back from total fabulousness is the consideration not to upstage your hostess.

The LBD is perfect for this occasion, although if you have a few events in the same month, individualise the dress each time with different jewellery, vintage touches or accessories.

Heels should be strappy and comfortable as you are likely to be standing around for a while — and cutting up the dancefloor later in the evening.

Good alternatives to the LBD include metallics, bright hues (although the brighter the colour, the more simple the gown needs to be), and the tuxedo suit for a lady — a classic masterstroke of androgyny.

Gentlemen's lounge suit
As this is an evening event, a dark suit and tie is the acceptable way to dress. Jacket and trousers should match and be in a dark navy, charcoal grey or black. If you are feeling oppressed by the tradition, you can ensure your suit is on the edgier side of the spectrum, going with a very slim-leg and narrow-lapel jacket, so that you don't feel too overdressed for the occasion.

Your tie can also be a good way to update the suit look and ensure that it is good for an evening out and a good knees up.

A good shirt with double cuffs, lace-up shoes, and a nice touch like a pocket square can see you right for this occasion. Have fun with it, and explore your dapper side for these events. It will be appreciated by both your guest and your host.