Thursday, August 30, 2007

Haute Couture

I was inivted to attend a dinner this week that was a rather important College-related affair. On the invitation, it specified "Coat and Tie" as the dress code for the men. Of course, no such specific instructions were given for the women who would be attending, which I quickly learned caused much Sturm und Drang for many of them.

At least a half-dozen times in the last few days, I've had one of my female colleagues poke her head in my office and ask "So what are YOU wearing to the dinner?" Now, this was pretty funny to me (as I am sure it is to those of you who know me at all) as I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a fashionista. My professional wardrobe, in sum, consists of your standard black, grey and khaki pants accented by a collection of mostly forgettable and largely conservative tops. I never wear skirts or dresses-- in fact, I no longer even own any skirts or dresses--and although I would not say that my "style" (s'il en y a) is exactly androgynous, it most certainly is nondescript. In short, I am not the sort of person that should come to mind when you are wondering who to ask for fashion advice. Not in any way.

Nevertheless, the dinner invitation did present a interesting dilemma. What is expected of women at a "coat and tie" event? I presume that in the business world this almost certainly means that the women are expected to wear skirts/dresses... but in academia, fortunately, most people are progressive enough to know better than to insist on that. (You won't be surprsed to learn, I am sure, that most of the women at the dinner were in dresses and heels, by the way.) So, I wanted to take a straw poll among (both male and female) readers of this blog: How would you have interprested the dress code for the women?


Chet said...

it seems very obvious that you should have worn a coat and tie yourself. in fact, this is perhaps the sexiest thing women can wear. tres sexy. annie hall, omg.

but what it probably means is something resembling a dress and heels.

Doctor J said...

Ahhhh, Chet, astute observation, as usual!

I couldn't agree with you more about the sexiness of women in coats and ties. And, as you rightly point out, Diane Keaton is the primo exmaple of this! However, I wonder whether or not some of that is due to the implicit "trangression" involved in cross-dressing, even of the most benign sort.

kgrady said...

Dress and heels is not, in my opinion, the female version of coat and tie. Coat and tie says business, while dress and heels says night out on the town. So I'm going with skirt/pants and sensible shoes.

Doctor J said...

good to see you back, Kyle!

i don't know about the finer distinction you're making here. I mean, what says "a night on the town" for men? It seems to me that dress/heels goes just as well with coat-and-tie of the "business" sort as it does with coat-and-tie of the "night out" sort.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that kind of affair in academia? You're definitely teaching in the South. You all do it different down there! Total old school.

I would have said pantsuit for you, since skirt/dress doesn't work for you.

Anonymous said...

Oh whoa to the woman who receives such an invitation. For stuff such as this, I tend to deconstruct my interview suit, and wear either the jacket with another pair of slacks or a skirt, or the skirt (mine happens to be a skirt suit, but same principle applies for pant suits) with a blouse or a sweater. I don't think one can go wrong with wearing good black pants and a nice top. On the subject of skirts and dresses, I think Kyle is wrong in his assumption that a dress and heels means night on the town. It depends on the dress. For example, a plain black shift dress can be very businesslike, especially when worn with a jacket on-top (actually, I think it's dowdy, but anyway).

If it were me, I'd just wear my suit. That's what guys get to do, so why not girls. It sucks that we have to choose a different outfit for every little thing while men can buy one good sport coat and wear that over trousers with a tie and look presentable. Heck, I'd just by feminine versions of the above pieces and have done with it.

Oh, and I would totally have done the coat and tie. Sexy, and actually very chic.

anotherpanacea said...

While I agree with anonymous that the fairest thing is just to wear your suit (preferably a pants suit), in reality you should remember that men are expected to have a separate set of dinner formal wear that both resembles business-wear and is crucially distinct from it.

I think the non-feminine female equivalent would be a pants suit in a showy color/fabric. Think Dolly Parton, think spangles, think shiny and/or bright and and/or outrageous mixtures of colors and patterns.

Doctor J said...


Dolly Parton? Really?

While I agree with your colorful-pantsuit suggestion, I can't agree with the "spangles." It seems to me that what a "coat-and-tie" requirement does NOT permit, for either women or men, is anything "outrageous."

And I would like to hear more about this distinction between the business coat-and-tie and the dinner coat-and-tie.

anotherpanacea said...

Okay, maybe spangles are out. That was meant to be more evocative than anything else.

However, the work/dinner clothing distinction seems to apply pretty much everywhere, since the idea is to have an event that feels different than lunch at the office. It's partly about creating an atmosphere that's more festive than work, but it's mostly a matter of marking class differences, especially in terms of differentiating superiors from their employees (since there's less room to parade the benefits of an increased salary around the office.) The differences can be as inane as wearing a black suit instead of a navy one, or the choice of shirt and tie.

The distinction I see between work clothes and evening wear is less prevalent in the academy, where professors wear whatever they feel like. This probably works to the advantage of men who are simply unwilling to attend to the social cues that underlie the delineation of work and socializing. (I imagine none of your male colleagues had to field such questions, which is also why they were given strict instructions vis-a-vis jackets and ties.) However, if we academic men had real jobs, we'd be expected to change out of our business suits to go to a fancy dinner. In that case the requirement would likely be either black-tie or this newfangled thing they call business casual: a separate blend of clothing required just to seem both professional and relaxed at the same time. I guess it's also about forcing you to dispose of that newfound disposable income.

Since leisure is supposed to be more loose and cool and, you know, authentic, you're really being asked to make a sartorial statement about your identity. Isn't that partly why you don't want to wear a dress? It's too girly, and that's not who you are.

I could see you rocking a nice tan leather or khaki sport coat with cords in cooler weather, but in this climate I think you go with a linen pants suit and an open collar shirt. Avoid peak lapels if you can, and go with something that has a collar that stands on its own a bit. You wouldn't go wrong with some stripes, either, preferably bold.

On the other hand, I do like the idea of stealing a page from your male colleagues and just shirking the whole notion of carefully-gauged fashion choices. Your personality and wit have always been your best accessories. What color goes best with awesome?