For years, black-tie dressing was a cinch. Men would don the traditional tuxedo; women would drape themselves in velvet and chiffon.
Then came the West Coast monkey wrench: invitations bearing trick phrases such as "California Black Tie," "Creative Black Tie" or "Casual Black Tie." Suddenly, the safety net was gone. It was every man for himself. And every woman, too.
Female party-goers have an easier time of it. Accustomed to fashion freedom, they substitute lingerie--including robes and kimonos--for formal wear--or slip into a man's tuxedo.
Under the tux jacket they might wear nothing, almost nothing (a fancy vest, a sexy bustier), or everything (shirt, tie, cummerbund). Tuxedo pants might be replaced by a dressy miniskirt or a longer expanse of diaphanous chiffon.
Marc Friedland, indefatigable party-goer and owner of Artafax, a Los Angeles company known for unusual invitations, praises the woman he once saw wearing a hand-painted robe over slim black pants and a black turtleneck. "She was striking, out of the norm," he recalls.
Friedland hand-paints and decorates his own formal attire--right down to his spats. One of his more unusual creations is a white dinner jacket, purchased in a thrift store, to which he has added Astroturf, farm animals and a picket fence. Most men would not venture so far from tradition. But as Friedland notes: "It's very much my personality, and I feel as an artist I can get away with it."
Standard-bearers say there are rules involved in bending the rules. Black-tie indicates a level of elegance. Anything too out of sync with your own personal style becomes a joke--which means not everyone should wear athletic shoes, even if the invitation says "creative" or "casual."
"If Woody Allen came in tennis shoes, it would be appropriate," explains Roger Forsythe, design director for Perry Ellis menswear. "But if someone is pushing their sense of style completely out of character, then it looks like a costume." Forsythe designs fantasy pieces, such as crimson jackets and $1,500 beaded vests. But he objects to invitations that specifically ask for inventive attire. "If you have to tell someone, you're going to get a lot of funny results."
Edward Maeder, curator of costumes and textiles for Los Angeles County Museum of Art, shares Forsythe's views. "I think you can always be creative. Why do people have to be told?" And he says the words casual black tie indicate the sender "has a problem with the English language. It's newspeak. It's calling it something it isn't."
Maeder prefers to limit his creativity to "the area between my chin and my waist." He will wear a porcelain bow tie or mismatched studs. But he frowns on jeans with a tuxedo jacket and says the general rule is: "If you wear anything that will make someone else feel uncomfortable, you have made a mistake. You can be creative-amusing and creative-fascinating, but I don't think you should be creative-offensive."
Men usually experiment first with their neckwear: donning exceptional ties, forsaking them altogether or substituting jewelry. But jewelry must be handled with care. Beverly Hills retailer Sami Dinar stocks lapel pins and recommends men "stay with silver, including silver with semiprecious stones, because it's not as flashy as gold."
Dinar's choice for an unusual tuxedo is a $900 design by Adolfo Dominguez. The oversize, drop-shoulder silk jacket has no collar, only one lapel and mismatched pockets. It comes with oversize, triple-pleated silk pants, and Dinar completes the look with a black silk T-shirt.
Sherman Oaks retailer Rick Pallack attends creative black-tie events in such unusual ensembles as an embroidered jacket or a black suede suit. His "party shirts" will have embroidery, piping or black silk buttons down the front. He also has an embroidered black suede cummerbund and black suede boots with appliques.
Men who don't have a whole store to choose from can follow Pallack's guideline: "What really makes the difference between boring and creative is an oversize jacket, worn with oversize trousers, an unusual shirt and no tie."
Richard Tyler, co-owner of Tyler Trafficante, a men's and women's clothing store in Los Angeles, designs garments such as a chiffon-paneled coat dress and a silk-velvet opera coat, both of which fit the "creative" concept.
There are even tails for women and brocade frock coats for men. But Tyler doesn't like painted jackets. "That's just not my thing," he says. "I don't need to go wild. It's more in the cut and the attitude of the clothing. I don't think you have to stand out like a sore thumb."
Sometimes the creativity just happens. On a trip to Boston, Edward Maeder discovered he had forgotten to pack studs for his tuxedo shirt. But help was only inches away. A shirt he had purchased earlier in the day in Filene's Basement was packaged with black-headed straight pins. Maeder used them for studs and caused a stir. "People were fascinated."