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.