Dress Code Etiquette



Dear Ms. Kern,

When does a woman wearing a dressy hat remove it? I was told that it wasn’t proper to wear a hat inside. Also, are hats worn in the evening after 6:00 p.m.?

My friends and I want to wear hats, but we don’t know the etiquette about wearing them. We see from your web page that you are a "hat wearer" and an etiquette consultant, so we were hoping that you would be able to answer our questions.

R.G., Naples, Florida



Dear R.G.,

I am, indeed, a hat wearer and an etiquette consultant. What a combination!! As you can see from my bio that is on my web page, I grew up at a time when wearing hats and white gloves to church as well as to other formal daytime affairs was mandatory! A "lady" did not go out without both.

When Jackie Kennedy became the First Lady in 1960, the milliners in our country wanted her to wear their hats, but the bouffant hairstyle was in vogue at that time. She did not want to mess up her hair with a hat, but she did not want to alienate the milliners either, so she compromised by wearing a "pillbox" hat on the back of her head. Of course, the pillbox hat became all the rage not only in America, but internationally as well.

Hats, and indeed, all of the fashions of the early ‘60’s went out of style in the latter part of the decade when the hippie look became popular. After the hippie look, we had, and still have, the grunge and blue jean look. However, judging from what I now see on the movie stars, who seem to influence our fashion, and from my e-mail etiquette questions about attire, I am happy to see that women want to once again dress in a more glamorous style.

To answer your question, a dressy hat does not need to be removed when the wearer is inside. A hat that is worn strictly for warmth, of course, would be removed when indoors.

Cocktail hats, or hats which may be worn after 6:00 p.m., are making a slow, but definite reappearance also. If you look at the movies from the 1940’s, you will see all of the fashionable women wearing little hats with their dinner dresses and suits.

Recently, when I was at the Chicago Lyric Opera, I saw a lovely young woman wearing a little black dress and a black cocktail hat! She looked so fetching that I went up to her, introduced myself and told her so. Since her hat was small and close to her head, she did not need to remove it during the opera.

Millinery shops are starting to reappear on the most fashionable shopping streets. On Michigan Ave. in Chicago, the Linda Campisano Millinery shop recently opened on the sixth floor of the Bloomingdales’s building. Neiman Marcus has always sold wonderful hats also.

When I was at a convention in Miami, FL last year, one of the men who worked at the Doral when I was staying saw me wearing a different hat every day of the convention. He told me about his sister, Sylvia Richards, who has a business called Hat and Soul and designs hats in New York. I had her design a cocktail hat for me to wear with a Sophie Sitbon suit that I have. I am sure that other milliners will start to emerge now that women are wearing hats again.

Wear your hats, wear them inside and look glamorous!!




Dear Ruth,

My husband and I are invited to a Christmas Party at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield, IL. The invitation has, Black Tie Optional, on it. My husband and I do not go to many formal parties and so he does not own a tuxedo. Is it really "optional" to wear a tux to a party like this or should he rent one for the occasion?

Also, if he does decide not to rent a tux, what should he wear and what should I wear to this party?

M.N., Peoria, IL



Dear M.N.,

If Black Tie Optional is written on an invitation, it is, indeed, optional for the gentlemen to wear tuxedos, but by putting such a thing on an invitation, the giver of the party is notifying the guests, that this is a formal affair to which they are being invited. If your husband decides not to rent a tuxedo for this party, then he should wear a dark suit, white shirt and conservative tie which is the next step down from a tuxedo.

You, on the other hand, have a few more choices to make. If your husband does rent a tuxedo, then you should wear an evening gown which may be either long or short. If he decides not to wear a tux, you may still wear an evening dress, but it should be less formal than one that you would wear if he were wearing a tux. You may also wear a lovely dinner suit to the event.

If you have any friends who have also been invited to this party, you might want to ask them what they are wearing. Since the party is being held in the Governor’s Mansion at Christmas time, everyone might get very dressed up and all of the other gentlemen may be wearing tuxes. If your husband would feel self-conscious about being the only man in a suit, perhaps he should rent that tuxedo.

Several years ago, when I was president of the Barrington Chapter of the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago, we had our formal dinner dance at one of the country clubs in Barrington during the Holiday Season. It was a Black Tie Optional affair, but I knew that most, if not all, of the men were going to be wearing tuxedos to this event.

One of the men that we had invited to the affair was adamant about not wearing a tuxedo! Some men are, you know. I did not want him to be the only man without a tux at the party because, even though he refused to wear one, I still worried that he might feel self-conscious when he got there and discovered that the other men were in tuxes. To prevent this from happening, I asked my husband not to wear his tux that evening.

Have fun at the party no matter what you wear!!





Dear Ms. Kern,

My girlfriend and I are having a disagreement about when it is proper to wear white shoes, linen and pants. Can you give us some guidelines, please?

R.A., Wayne, PA



Dear R.A.,

In the dark ages, when I was young, white shoes were NEVER worn before Memorial Day or after Labor Day!! This is still a good rule of thumb. Winter white, which has either more gray or yellow in it than summer white, which is a pure white, may be worn throughout the year, however.

Living in the frozen north, as I do here in the Chicago area, I generally wear dark colors in wool or other warm fabrics during the fall and winter months and save my lighter colors and fabrics such as linens and silks for spring and summer.

As far as when it is proper for a woman to wear pants, that is a good question. Again, in the long ago and far away time when I was growing up, pants were not considered appropriate attire for class even in my public high school and a girl would have been sent home if she wore them to school!! In 1961 when I entered college, a sorority girl, as I was, was not allowed to wear pants to class!

This rule about not wearing pants, and indeed all the dress code rules, was abolished for public high schools sometime during the late ‘60’s. Panhellenic changed the rule for sorority girls at about that same time also.

Nowadays, women wear pantsuits even when they are in professional situations. Two of my girlfriends, who are lawyers practicing in Chicago, have told me that they will wear pantsuits for everyday business situations, but when they are arguing a case in front of a judge, they will wear dark, very tailored, skirted suits. They feel that this professional uniform gives them more credibility.

In the Chicago area, most businesswomen seem to feel this way about the skirted business suit, but on both coasts, professional businesswomen wear the pantsuit for even the most formal business situations. Mrs. Clinton seems to be influencing this trend right now because she is often seen in a pantsuit even when she is speaking in front of a group of businesspeople.

If George Bush, Jr. is elected President in the year 2000, his wife, who appears to me to be a real Southern Belle, may reverse this trend towards wearing pantsuits, however. She is rarely seen in a pantsuit and women, businesswomen and others, may follow her example. We’ll see.


If you have any questions about dress code etiquette,

You may e-mail them to Ms. Kern