The invitation arrives in the mail. Two words loom large in one corner. They're engraved: BLACK TIE.
The question is, what does black tie mean today? Well, definitely not long white kid gloves--it hasn't meant that since Daisy went to East Egg. Your girlfriends say it means a gold lame mini. Maybe they're right, if you're 22 and going out on the town with Tim Hutton.
Men generally follow the custom of wearing a tuxedo, but at any given black-tie event, women show up in trousers, ball gowns and dresses of all descriptions starting with minis and heading south to the floor.
When you get right down to it, not even Nancy Livingston knows for sure. She says she's "confused" like everyone else.
The always-correct president of the Music Center's Amazing Blue Ribbon sighs: "It's the hardest thing to decide what to wear and end up with something that's appropriate for the occasion." A pause. "I really haven't conquered any of this."
If she's not sure, who is?
We asked 10 designers in New York and Los Angeles what the new evening etiquette is and found that hardly any two agree. Here are their responses:
Carolina Herrera: "For me, black tie means floor length. If it is a very, very dressy mid-calf dress, perhaps with embroidery, then maybe. The mood is changing. Things are going in a very elegant direction. Everybody wants to be very glamorous and chic for evening. The rules are more relaxed, but the elegant things are coming back because women want to look like women.
"I suppose you have to dress according to the event. If you're going to dance at the Viennese Ball, where you know the room is very big, then big ball gowns that move are pretty. If you're going to the theater or the opera or a dinner where you are going to be seated for most of the night, you cannot wear a ball gown because it won't fit in the chair. I see that happen many times. It's going to be very uncomfortable for you and for your partner.
"I don't like sandals for evening. I never liked them. The shoes should be very slinky pumps, not too heavy and not too open. Maybe open at the back, but never at the toe. I don't like the way toes look. And real silk stockings should be worn in ivory or white, although sometimes you have to wear black. The minaudieres (hard-cover purses) are all right if you already own one, but I wouldn't buy one now. There are too many copies around. I like satin bags, grosgrain and gold lame. For ball gowns, I also like capes, usually satin lined in ermine or sable. Jackets can be velvet on the outside and Russian broadtail or sable inside."
Bill Blass: "That's what's marvelous about now. Somebody can wear trousers, somebody can wear a strapless ball gown, somebody can wear a short, ruffly dress. I like the idea that there are so many options. I don't think that it should be a problem; choices give a woman individuality.
"I do think the general rule is a long dress. You'd probably feel better and safer in a long dress, properly covered. When the party is in somebody's home, I think that when in doubt, dress up to please the hostess. . . . The biggest mistake women make is wearing clothing that looks as if they didn't make an effort. I'm not sure understated works anymore. A simple short dress is not a compliment to the hostess.
"There is a school that thinks ball gowns are still quite romantic. About a third of the women wear them in New York when there's dancing involved. A ball gown--very apt to be strapless, full-skirted and very, very romantic--is marvelous when there's a lot of dancing, but they're awkward in someone's home.
"I think pants are very important, although I take a dim view of a woman wearing a tuxedo. Important pants with a great beaded jacket are fine."
Oscar de la Renta: "I loathe black tie, to tell you the truth. All the waiters wear black tie. I always associate black tie with boredom. If anybody invites me to a black-tie party, I think about it twice.
"I think the biggest mistake women make is either overdressing or underdressing. One should assess the occasion and wear the right thing. One should delineate the uses of clothes. For the theater or an opening, everything goes. It's much more comfortable to wear a very dressy short dress, rather than something that drags on the dirty floor. It's uncomfortable to sit in a long dress for a long period of time. There's no distinction at all between a cocktail dress and a short formal dress. Both are the same thing. No one dresses for cocktails and then goes home and changes for dinner.
"Minis? I hate them. They're for young people, people who didn't have a chance to wear them in the '60s. Anyone of the age to have worn them in the '60s should not wear them now.
"With jewelry, again it depends on the occasion. I like either the real McCoy or costume jewelry with its own look--some fantasy. You can express good design with any materials. Absolutely, you can combine real with costume. . . . I don't like sandals. There's nothing prettier than satin pumps, any color. Unless you have the most beautiful feet in the world, avoid sandals. There's nothing worse than ugly toes. . . . A woman can wear a fur shawl, a coat, a lot of things. A beautiful cashmere shawl doesn't wrinkle that much. You can smash it away or fold it up."
Arnold Scaasi: "What's nice is that women are dressing now. No one is going straight from the office anymore thinking that they can take off their tweed jacket and wear their satin blouse and tweed skirt. There was a time when women did that, but that's finished. You have to go home, take a bath, set your hair, put on fresh makeup and feel festive.
"I went recently to a black-tie charity dinner, and a woman had on a very boring short black silk dress. I think that's wrong. Women should wear something that looks gala and fun. Nobody wants a dumb, boring dress anymore. There used to be a rule that you wore a long-sleeve crepe dress. Now you can wear something bare and short, long and covered up or bare and long--whatever.
"But what you wear depends on the group of people who are going to be at the party. Is it a dressy group of people or a casual group of people? You also have to consider what kind of event it is. If you're going to a charity ball, you definitely wear a dress to the floor. For a black-tie dinner-dance where someone's being honored, you can wear long, midi or a very dressy short dress. For a dinner at home--not as formal as a ball--wear a long or a short, very dressy dress. Short to me is no shorter than knee-length. I don't like mini dresses for my women. When you're spending $1,500 or $2,000, I don't think you should buy a dress that's just a fad. I'm very bored with pants and a beaded top. I think that's a cop-out. And I think women's tuxedos are awful.
"If you wear a short dress, the shoes and stockings become all important. I like high-heel sandals and a bare, nude-color stocking, but I don't mind a sheer black stocking. I sort of hate plum-color stockings with a plum dress. I think that looks awful for evening.
"I'd also rather see someone wear fake important jewels than real tiny, teeny boring jewelry with a wonderful dress. I hate that."
Akira: "Women should wear what they feel comfortable in. The most important thing to me is that they be individuals. That's the new approach.
"My customers are young. I'm 36 and I design for women my age or younger. I think long dresses for black tie are old-fashioned. I don't like knee length either--that to me is too daytime. I like mid-calf or ankle length, and I like my customers in short dresses--way above the knee--2 1/2 to three inches.
"But a woman who is going to wear a short, short dress has to know how to put it together with the proper accessories. The total look becomes more important. I recommend that women talk to the designer, a makeup artist, a hairdresser. You can't wear the same hair style if your dress is way above the knee. Dark hair tends to look heavy with short skirts. I prefer less hair, a lighter look--like a chignon. Blondes can have fuzzy, big, long hair and still look light.
"With a short dress, you also need nice earrings--I like simple but large--and I see people wearing real stones again. If you're going to play around with fakes, they should look obviously fake. You need well-made shoes. With ankle-length dresses, I like a lower heel. But with short-short, I like a 4 1/2- to five-inch satin pump. You're showing your leg, so you need a long leg look. I also like matching stockings. If you're wearing a lace dress with a short taffeta skirt, I'd put lace stockings with it. Or a fuchsia dress, fuchsia stockings and silver or platinum pumps. I think it should be totally coordinated."
Michael Novarese: "I'd consider the hostess, where the party is held and who the party is for. It's common sense. Some hostesses are known to give very elaborate, important parties. Others give black-tie parties but keep them in a more subtle vein. When there is a ball with a great theme, that in itself would establish the mode of dress. For example, when the Rodeo Drive Committee honored (James) Galanos, the clothes were very opulent. If it's a party for the Cardinal, dress accordingly. If it's the Academy Awards, less is better.
"For black tie, usually the gown should be long, but it can be mid-calf. Preferably long. . . . Until now, there have not been that many short important dresses available. Now there are more than there ever have been. I think for traveling--and that is becoming a very big factor today--it's easier to pack a short elaborate dress. A short formal dress is appropriate if you are an out-of-towner. The short dress must be important, perhaps beaded, dramatic and in a color that would carry the look of formality. As a rule, a very shocking purple or a brilliant emerald green would do that. A plain black dress, if it is not adorned with jewelry, will not do it.
"Pants are also very important as long as they are elaborate. Tuxedos are excellent. If the lady has the correct figure, height and hair, tuxedos can be very sensual.
"The jewelry goes back to the importance of the evening. The more important the evening, the more important the jewelry. Imitation jewelry of quality is acceptable and amusing. There's also the area of mixing fake with real. That's OK, as long as the quality is there.
"Shoes are always high heel, either a sling pump, a closed pump or a sandal, usually in a dark silk. Dyed-to-match shoes are trying to make a comeback. They solve a lot of problems."
Fabrice: "When it calls for black tie, a dress can be short or long, but I find short is really more important. More people are wearing short than long. A dress can be three inches above the knee, but it has to be major, something really major, either wonderfully beaded or with humor to it. It cannot be a boring garment.
"If you're wearing an important dress, only the real jewelry. . . . I like a plain satin or peau de soie pump, preferably the color of the garment. A little minaudiere is chic to carry. And I like beautiful cashmere capes. They go over short or long. If it's warm, a person wearing a bare dress should buy a jacket or stole or scarf to match the dress."
Mary McFadden: "I don't think length makes any difference, nor do I think silhouette makes any difference. I think it's attitude. In order to be dressed up, a dress has to have embroidery or sequins and jewels or be in a unique fabrication like a very heavy silk crepe or a beautiful organza. Some dresses look better to the ankle, some look better to the ground. Short is all right too, but not any shorter than two inches below the knee.
"I'm not really in favor of short mink evening jackets. I much prefer wraps and stoles and throws in fox and ermine. If it's cold, a full-length mink coat is very good because it doesn't cut up the dress. If a woman doesn't have fur, she can wear a full-length cloth coat. I don't like in-between.
"I think closed shoes look better with evening clothes and complete the look. I happen to like a black, white, silver, bronze or gold satin with at least a three-inch heel. . . . I think fake jewels add a great deal of theater. The larger they are, the more dazzling they become, but if you're going to wear fakes, keep them all fakes. If you're going to wear real, keep it all real."
Tracy Mills: "I'd say black tie is certainly any length now as long as the dress is dressy enough. I know the trend is very much toward short dresses, but you can't take a short dinner dress and make it black tie. It's perfectly acceptable to wear a short formal, but the dress should look very dressy. It cannot be too understated--like a boring little black dress. It's got to have some sort of oomph--it can have some sparkle, although it doesn't have to, or it can be in really dressy fabrics, such as polished organza, taffeta, crepe trimmed in stones or feathers or flowers. Definitely lace is in, and maybe an open kind of neckline. . . . For a short dress, the heels should be a little shorter. A medium-heel, dressy sandal is fabulous for short dresses. It makes the foot look so pretty.
"I love pants. I do know that pants are not so in; they're not in the wind right now. But for California, I don't see anything wrong with them if they're really dressy.
"My first choice, though, is a long gown. I'm more traditional. If people are spending a lot of money to attend a party out of respect to the organization, long to me is just more elegant. That's what it's all about. I prefer to see people as elegant as possible. And to me, elegance is long rather than short."
Jill Richards: "My feeling is that you can have many choices: long, mid-calf, a handkerchief hemline or a short bare dress just hitting the top of the knee or just below the knee. If a dress is bare enough, it becomes black tie--like a little strapless or a spaghetti strap. So does elaborate fabric, like sequined lace.
"Unless you're the hostess and the party is in your home, I don't think pants are where it's at, especially not at a hotel black-tie function. My personal choice is a long gown, because, really, there aren't that many opportunities to wear one, and they make you feel regal.
"For black tie, I think sandals are more delicate than pumps, and I'm a pearl freak. Diamonds and pearls are always a lovely combination. I don't care for imitation jewelry at all.
"Wraps? That's where the problems come in. To tell you the truth, I think women wear short dresses because they don't have a coat to wear with a floor-length dress."