Your Black Tie Options

Pumpkins, just got this inquiry:

I’m sorry we didn’t connect at GA…but I have a perfect “beauty tip for ministers conundrum.” I will be offering the before dinner prayer and a benediction at a black tie gala in December. Yes, lucky me. But, I need something to wear. Evening dresses all either look too bare or too mother of the bride. I’d like to look stylish and chic, but still appropriately ministerial. Advice welcome!

And you shall HAVE it, then, honored lady!

Now let’s face it: ministers are not black-tie event people, not really. We’re simply not wealthy enough to get invited to these things as guests to be feted and fawned over so that we’ll write a big check to the hosting organization or persons. When we get invited to dine with Mr. and Mrs. Gottrocks, it’s because of our position, not our bank accounts. We’re there to lend clerical sobriety to the undertaking, to give the blessing and the benediction as though to insinuate that God is so on board with this occasion, we can at any moment expect five thousand-dollar bills to come fluttering down from heaven by way of confirmation. As an extra bonus for our presence we get to eat lots of shrimp horse-divorce and talk Theology 101 with the upper crust for hours (“You say you’re spiritual but not religious? Isn’t that fascinating. I’ve never heard that before; DO expound while I get another champagne cocktail!”). PeaceBang is always of two minds when receiving a swanky invite. Part of her can’t wait to dress up and be fancy for an evening while the other part of her groans and tries to climb into the cabinet under the kitchen sink (They Will Never Find Me Among The Clorox!).

All that being said, dear Ms. H., you don’t have to wear true black tie. You don’t have to wear one of those dreary Vaguely-Related-To-The-Mother-of-the-Bride get-ups and you certainly shouldn’t appear in anything like an evening gown (save that for when you’re somewhere fancy and fun and can do plunging decolletage and no one even knows you’re clergy). I recommend three options for your consideration:

1. A very expensive (by pastor’s standards), very gorgeous black suit with fabulous dressy pumps (even with a bit of bling factor). Carry a smashing clutch purse and wear the most elegant pearls you can beg, borrow or steal. Get your hair done. Splurge on a Chanel lipstick; you’ll feel rich. Wear a huge cocktail ring. The idea here is “I’m not trying to do actual black tie, I’m the PARSON, for God’s sake. But I am doing a bit of glam because I understand where I am.”

2. A very gorgeous, perfectly cut black jacket of some kind (I have one that was a pretty standard black blazer but I bought some smashing black jet buttons in Italy and had them sewn on, now the jacket is swellegant) and a long, very formal skirt and open-toed shoes. Some bling at the neck and ears, and you’re on.

3. If you would like to draw attention to yourself and your True Holiness, go in a plain black dress, an everyday jacket you would wear to church meetings, and scuffed Danskos. This communicates, “I’m not even trying to keep up with the Joneses here. I represent the Church and its values. So in an “up-yours” gesture of social defiance and judgment of all you materialistic sinners, I will sit here and eat your food and drink your cocktails and respond to this honor by looking like a frump.” You can tell how PeaceBang feels about that third option, can’t you, dears?

PeaceBang recommends that every one of us have some Appropriate For Black Tie articles ready to go in our closets and that we should not think of updating them more than every 5-10 years. They should be CLASSICS and very, very fine. This is the sort of thing you comb the sale racks for in search of gems and you buy them when you find them.

For years I wore a violently pink, beautiful ankle length chiffon skirt (sounds hideous, but was really lovely) and my black Italian button jacket to fancy ‘dos. I haven’t been to anything that dressy for a long time and I’m not sure what I would wear if I got an invitation. Probably a black suit with my old stand-by sequined black shell, a huge cocktail ring, glam make-up and I’d go pick up a pair of hideously painful and gorgeous heels from DSW Shoe Warehouse. So you’ve reminded me, Deb, to keep my eye out for a dressy skirt or a pair of really nice, crepe slacks. In dress wear, you can’t fake it. Fabrics, cut and fit are everything. Some things that are inappropriate for black tie events (for women): sensible shoes, Timex wristwatches (leave it off if you don’t have a dressy watch), cotton anything, floral prints, knee-length skirts (although a knee-length LBD is fine if you’re gaminesque), business separates. Think taffeta, think dupioni silk, think bugle beads, think impeccably done hair and make-up, think manicure with short, wine red nails. Think clutch bag (NOT shoulder bag!!), think cashmere wrap or dressy shawl rather than coat.
Gentlemen: if you don’t have a smashing black suit that fits you like a dream and you don’t wear clericals, just rent a tux. Seriously. Then work it and make it yours.

8 Replies to “Your Black Tie Options”

  1. I do tend to think of myself as a black-tie event kindof girl, though! More evidence of something disturbing…

  2. What if you look washed out and terrible in black? I can’t wear black near my face. [It’s all about the make-up, my dear! Every woman can look good in black — but you need to do some cosmetic enhancement… I wish I lived nearby and we could play with different colors and textures… –PB]

  3. Oh, this is a great entry, and yes, those occasions do come up from time to time and are fun. I used to have a great pair of black silk palazzo-type pants that I could wear with almost anything and look glam in any season. They accumulated snags and eventually had to be discarded. Now I have a hot pink Ralph Lauren handkerchief-hem skirt (I know, like you I think it sounds outrageous, and it is, a bit — but also looks surprisingly festive and nice). And I just bought another pair of (more tailored, less palazzo) black silk pants, if I could just get them back from the tailor! Why are alterations people always LATE with one’s clothes???

  4. There was an epic-length discussion on black- and (the even rarer) white-tie for clergy at Ship of Fools a few years back: I’ll see if I can get a link.

    I think option #3 is a bad idea. If you really want to be aloof, you should decline the invitation. Better to be properly dressed, keep a light hand on the food and drink — think spa, not Lent — and direct the conversation to substantial, reflective topics where possible. In other words, not be a caricature of greedy, insipid or worldly clergy. Watch the religious personalities in the opening party scene of Auntie Mame for the correct behavior. Even if you don’t see yourself that way, there are plenty of people who have the clergy in for the worst kind of denegration, sometimes cloaked in cutting remarks.

    That said, I’d go for option #2, skewing to silk or velvet as taste, budget and figure allow. PBs right about it being about the tailoring, and that extends to the fabric of the clothing.

    A personal word, directed to the men out there: if given time and occasion, I get a new black suit –my old one is showing its age — and order a silk clerical shirtfront in place of the crepe one I’d normally wear in cool weather.

  5. Let’s face it–those of who wear Anglican collars are the only folks left who know a collar stud when we see it. So I use this to my advantage.

    When I have a new ’round of clerical shirts made, (I always use one of those Custom-Shirt places; get as many as I can afford at one time, only have to show them the band collar with a three buttonholes once)I have one made in a high-end lovely silk with French cuffs and requiring studs down the front. Oh yes, pull those darts in tight, honey, and show the curves.

    Add a fabulous set of studs and cufflinks (with as much bling as possible); a black organza skirt, wool crepe trousers, whatever feels good right now, plus killer, ridiculous shoes, and shock ’em all. It doesn’t solve the problem of what to wear next week; it takes some planning, but ah! It’s worth it.

  6. As an older priest, I find two options most useful depending on the type of function:

    1) A tux-type suit with long skirt, and clerical shell blouse in an appropriate fabric (medium weight silk is good). Check out mess dress for female general officers and admirals for ideas.

    2) Wear your finest cassock – both daring and very retro.

    For people who simply cannot wear black, navy is becoming increasingly acceptable both for suits and blouses. Despite a notched collar, and no matter how long your hair or how much makeup you wear, people will inevitably ask if you are a nun. Be prepared with a gentle answer.

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