The invitation arrives. Big party, fabulous host, good cause.
But then comes the dreaded style directive.
Such nouveau mutations of established dress codes like formal or casual have become commonplace on the been-everywhere-done-it-all Los Angeles social scene, where creativity is not just appreciated but expected.
Case in point: The leopard print-lined invite to the recent Ultra-Lounge party, a Neil Bogart Memorial Fund benefit honoring Capitol Records' honcho Gary Gersh, featured perhaps the most detailed dress code ever attempted. The list of possibilities included "Leopard & sharkskin, toreadors & calypsos, Hef's PJ's & smoking jackets, satin & velvet, angora & cashmere, taffeta & chiffon, Spring-O-Lators & alligators, seamed stockings & monogrammed socks . . . dickies & hand-painted ties."
For guests who still felt lost, the event planners offered up a direct line to the fashion police.
"This constituency gets invited to a lot of events. The goal was to let people know this would be different and fun," explains Karen Carbone, executive director of the fund.
In coming up with its sartorial guidelines, the planning committee figured, "If it's not black tie, [people] don't know how to dress," Carbone says.
Marc Friedland, an invitation designer for his L.A. firm Creative Intelligence, has witnessed the trend toward vague dress codes. He encourages clients to be specific in their style requests.
"You can come up with cute and clever things, but it leaves a lot of ambiguity. Like 'afternoon dressy.' What's that?" asks Friedland, who did the Ultra-Lounge invitation and attended the party in PJs and a smoking jacket.
He would have no doubt approved, then, of "tennis shorts and green ties," the oddball combo requested by Beverly Hills restaurateur Jimmy Murphy, an Irishman and tennis fan, for his 50th birthday roast. The guest of honor's wife, Anne, says all 50 male guests appeared to be in full compliance when the wives, wearing dressy cocktail clothes, joined the gentlemen later in the evening.
For a lack of sartorial consensus, the dictum "Attire Preferred (fig leaf optional)" works nicely. A MOCA staff member had to field calls from confused arts patrons after that dress code, which played off a Garden of Eden theme, appeared on the invitation to the MOCA Contemporaries' $60-a-head fund-raiser in August.
"I told people that it was outside, in Santa Monica, on asphalt, and would be cool because it's evening in a beach community," Lynn Frangos says. Except for a few standouts (the transvestites in Chanel), the crowd went with an assortment of short and long dresses, sport coats and slacks. Of course, she adds, the phone rings even when MOCA specifies black tie; patrons want to know if they really have to wear tuxes. And artists, being artists, never wear them anyway.
When planning a formal event, Friedland always suggests the phrase "black tie" over "black tie optional" on the invitation, because it takes a stand. He nixes "creative black tie," an '80s favorite, arguing that it rarely inspires anything creative.
Such formal mandates may restrict the guys, but women still have a lot of leeway, says Tom Voltin, general manager for Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. A short or long dress, formal pajamas, elegant pantsuit or tux are all perfectly correct.
"The only time it's necessary to wear a long dress is when the invitation uses the words 'gowns' or 'ball,' " says Voltin, a familiar face on the social circuit.
But that rule doesn't always hold, as in the case of September's Huntington Ball, where most women somehow knew to slip into short cocktail dresses. The location, the time of year and the look of the invitation all offered clues.
"The front of the invitation had a watering can on it, which to me denotes that it's a little less formal," explains Evie Cutting, special events coordinator for the Huntington Library. "It was at the Temple of the Four Seasons, which means it's outdoors. And the reply card said, 'in case of unseasonable weather. . . .'
"Now, if it had been one of our Christmas parties, which are held in the Huntington home, 99% of the women would go long," she adds.
In many cases, though, location is less important than knowing the personality of the host or honoree.
For their September wedding reception on a Malibu bluff, Fred and Betty Hayman stated black tie for the men and "outdoor cocktail attire" for the women. Typically, "outdoor" means dress down and "cocktail" denotes short hemlines. Yet the ladies went in the opposite direction, dressy and long, partly because the men wore black tie. But they also knew that their host is a formal kind of guy.
Indeed, the Swiss-born retailer is famous for his "very black tie" perfume launches, which bring out the long gowns and jewels from the vault. "Even when I say 'casual at home,' they come pretty dressy," Hayman says of his guests. "I have to tell them 'fleece and gym shoes' for them to do it."
Chip Sullivan, a DreamWorks SKG exec who plans events, says the L.A. guests invited two years ago to a 48th birthday bash for Elton John took the "casual chic" edict far beyond its widely accepted interpretation (black jeans, black T-shirts, black blazers).
"Because it was Elton John, it upped the ante," Sullivan says. "With him, casual is Valentino. Everybody who came got it." The birthday boy wore pink Versace. Sharon Stone arrived in a shiny blue silk Versace suit. Other women chose brushed satin suits. Rod Stewart had on a smoking jacket in mustard.
Likewise, Michael Dargin's friends caught the drift of his "Try and Make Me Jealous" directive. Well-known for his colorful vests, ascots and scarves, the Spago maitre d' wanted to see flamboyant fashion: black leather, see-through tops, revealing spandex dresses and colorful cocktail clothes. "It meant they should wear something that is going to make me green because I don't own it," says Dargin, who threw the party to celebrate his 40th birthday. "I wanted people to extend themselves and not be trapped in a suit."
The desire to break the suit mold has spawned a slew of variations on casual. Los Angeles designer Pam McMahon, whose alternative cocktail clothes (brightly patterned separates with antique jewel buttons that can be deconstructed to go with jeans) just debuted at Neiman Marcus, has requested "very casual" and "cocktail casual" dress.
"For 'very casual' you should wear what you'd wear to a Hootie and the Blowfish concert," she says. In other words, jeans and a T-shirt. "Cocktail casual" is "a pair of cigarette pants and a great shirt."
And what about "Malibu white"?
Don Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has used that line to set the semi-dressy tone for his annual party to kick off the basketball season. He describes the look as "Ralph Lauren casual," which is fancier than jeans or tennis shorts. Women tend to wear skirts, dresses and heels; men dress in white Dockers and polo shirts. In other words, no flip-flops.