From the sari to the perfect tux, much importance is given to being well turned out at a social gathering, and not without good reason
Recently, I got an invitation to an afternoon ‘brunch party’. The dress code said, ‘formal.’ I was confused. Formal, for an afternoon brunch? Then I figured that the hosts simply didn’t want guests turning up in jeans, slippers, shorts or sundresses. Writing ‘formal’ was her way to keep invitees on the straight and narrow and well turned out. Otherwise, formal occasions are those when dressing up is the norm. It’s usually these instances, such as gala sit down dinners and wedding receptions where you have to mind your sartorial Ps & Qs. Those might be rare, especially in India, but it’s worth comprehending the meaning of different dress-related terms to understand fully what is being implied. And for those with a stuffed social schedule, there’s plenty of opportunity for embarrassing sartorial faux pas. Why chance showing up for a sit down dinner in jeans and sandals only to find everyone else in black tie?
So I chatted with etiquette professional and teacher Saloni Duggal who raised some interesting points. “It’s better to be right than rude,” she pointed out, “But don’t let clothes override your confidence. Even if you go in the wrong attire, be confident. And if you have doubts about the dress code, don’t be afraid to call the host to check.”
While genres of business dressing are divided into business casual, semi-formal and formal, the word ‘casual’ often throws people off, and they end up over-or under-dressing. “Business casual can cover blazer, chinos, button-down Oxford shirts, in cotton or linen and even smart jeans. No sneakers. Matching shoes, belt and socks. Always think one step down from a higher level, not more. For women, a sari covers everything from casual soirées to black tie events, and if it’s Western wear, a short or long dress would work.” The difference lies in the fabric and colours, she adds. “In the daytime, if women want to dress up a look, they can pick pale or light linens, chiffons or crisp cottons in icy colours which reflect the heat. And no diamonds before 5pm is the classic rule, barring tiny studs. A linen number with good sunglasses works right. A handbag and some perfume finish the look.” Brighter colours work well at night.
As for ‘business formals’, men often think that a suit requires no prior planning, but that’s not true, says Duggal. “Suit, tie and shirt must always be in perfect colour protocol.” And just ‘formal’ means black or white tie — tuxedo jacket with the requisite white shirt and black bow tie, dark shoes and socks, perhaps with cummerbund or dressy braces. “In the Indian context, bandgalas with leather shoes look smart. If you don’t want a tie, a cravat with a matching pocket square works well. And if you’re a woman invited to a formal sit down, remember, longer is better when it comes to dress length. And the sari is perfect.”
Finally, while dress norms are changing, there’s something faultless about respecting tradition and dressing right, says Duggal. As the ever wise Euripedes (who never wore a business suit) said some aeons ago, “Know first who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.”