Even the word sounds uptight formal. Dressing up shouldn't have to mean stressing up.
The key to calm is knowing what type of attire is expected at the event. Of course, that's not always so simple. Even the staid tuxedo changes to reflect fashion, with fabrics, silhouettes and accessories absorbing the look of the moment. Women's formal wear may seem safe if it's sparkly, but it also sways with the fleeing fashion breezes.
What's a fashion-forward person to do? Relax. This isn't that hard. Imagine yourself at an elegant affair in your evening wear looking classic, like Fred Astaire or his ever-so-elegant partner, Ginger, rather than cartoonish, like Fred Flintstone and his fashionably prehistoric Wilma. Now take some advice from the experts, who can tell you the difference between a cocktail dress and a ballgown, and tailcoat and a coat with a tail.
Formal dressing begins with the right attitude, says Robert Kushmore, vice president of Gary's Tux Shops, a tuxedo-rental chain throughout the Los Angeles area.
"We believe that formal wear, while it is for dressing up, is not just for special occasions. It's for fun occasions," he said.
That doesn't mean you should match your cummerbund to the lampshade for New Year's Eve, but you don't have to look like the queen's maiden aunt or a penguin in mourning, either.
But, you say, you're a fashionable kind of guy who doesn't want to look like every other fellow in the place. You want to look very GQ. No problem. Edward Cortese, spokesman for GQ, can help you turn heads.
Think about the details, Cortese advised. Satin collars, shawl collars and tuxedos in deep, almost black tones of blue are the hottest thing outside of haute couture. Black tie is going white in Europe, where Cortese said an all-white look for evening was shown in recent menswear collections. Fabrics with a subtle plaid weave, in tartan or black-watch plaid, have been shown on jackets. Cortese said the fabric borrows from Old World styles, not the newest trendy fabric houses.
Of course, if all this seems too bothersome, stick to the standard tuxedo.
"There is no question that if you stay with the traditional black-and-white tuxedo in a single-breasted, notched collar, or a double-breasted with peaked lapels, with a simply pleated shirt, black tie and cummerbund, you will look right wherever you go," Cortese said.
Women have more choices for formal dressing, and that's the problem. One too many frills and oops! you're the talk of the party, for the wrong reasons. The little black dress is always a safe bet, but not always the most fun.
Although menswear has followed certain basic rules, a woman has little tradition to guide her when the invitation reads black tie. What it means depends on whom you ask.
"I don't think black tie means a formal gown anymore," said Suzanne Tent, president of Lisa Anne L.A. Designs Inc. "But I think black is appropriate for any time of year," she said. Tent and her designer sister, Lisa Anne, suggest separates that can be combined with long or short skirts, jackets, slacks or sequined pieces to appropriately match events throughout the year.
Adjusting your wardrobe to a non-traditional formal look might be confusing, but not if you remember the maxim of fashion's mavens: When in doubt, simplify.
Back to the little black dress? Not necessarily so, said Nancy Johnson, a Los Angeles dress designer who recently introduced an evening-wear line, Premier. You, and the rest of the party, still can indulge your love of glitter if that's the prevailing look.
"The little black dress is always appropriate, and it's a wonderful foil for great accessories and jewelry."
Some accessories can be more vexing than charming.
"Gloves are a fun fashion accessory but should be carefully chosen for an outfit. They might make you look like a bad prom date," she said.