Holiday Party Dress Codes

Dear Helena,
Every December, I throw a fabulous holiday party. And I mean fabulous. I have an eight-foot tree. I make three kinds of cheese balls, and I decorate the entire house with yards of red tulle and real pine branches. And every year a few slacker guys show up in jeans, looking as if they are coming over to watch the game. Some of the women are not much better. Am I asking too much if I expect people to dress up? IS it micromanaging to specify a dress code on the invite, and if I do, what is the appropriate terminology?
—Sparkles, Not Sweatpants

Dear Sparkles,
For most people today, dressing down is the default mode, even at a holiday party. Jessica Morgan, cocreator of the blog Go Fug Yourself, suggests that female guests wear "a cute sequined top, nice jeans, and heels"—an outfit that is only a few notches above yoga pants.

Compare this to previous decades. Dr. Patricia Warner, a costume historian, says that up until the early '70s, "most men wore suits or, for a casual party, a tweed jacket and gray flannels, but definitely a tie and shirt." Women were expected to wear a smart dress or skirt. John Tiffany, author of Eleanor Lambert: Still Here and a fashion historian, says it was hippie culture that ushered in the new era of down-dressing. "The casualness of the drug culture [of the '60s and '70s] really changed everything. Jackie Kennedy had bouffant hair ... but people became hippies and never went back to that style of dressing." By the early '70s, pants were generally accepted party attire for women. Before that, says Warner, women in pants were often barred from restaurants. Male party guests began to substitute the turtleneck for a tie and shirt. And nowadays, casualness has gone so far that jeans are worn nearly everywhere.

So do you have the right to expect your guests to depart from their fashion comfort zone just because you spent hours turning your house into a winter wonderland? In a word: yes. Guests should dress up for a fancy party, just as they should dress up for a fancy restaurant. In both cases, it's a mark of respect for the labor that went into creating the occasion. And as at a restaurant, part of the pleasure of a party is the human spectacle. It is more fun to look at a roomful of festive outfits than it is to look at a bunch of people who are dressed for a night in front of the TV. Also, dressing up makes people look sexier, and therefore encourages the innocent flirtation that is the lifeblood of many a good party.

But most people are not going to dress up unless you tell them to, for fear of being overdressed. So specify your dress code on the invitation. Keep your wording simple, as in "Dress: Cocktail Attire," or just "Dress: Up." Don't try to be clever. As Go Fug Yourself's Morgan says, "There's nothing worse than getting an invitation ... and the dress code is something they've just made up like 'casual festive.'" Tiffany dislikes the phrase "creative black tie," but even more opaque is "downtown black tie," which the host requested for an upcoming dinner party Tiffany is attending. His interpretation: "It means the husband wears cowboy boots."

Finally, beware of using the word "festive," because some guests may take you too literally and show up in reindeer antlers or Santa sweaters that play "Jingle Bells." As Morgan says, "[The holiday sweater] is sort of hard to pull off, unless you're eight or eighty."

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