When is formal ‘formal’?
When I was growing up, there were distinct rules on what we were expected to wear and when. As a small child, I even remember having to wear little white gloves when going to a wedding or some grand church event. Fortunately the white gloves soon became outmoded, although members of the Royal family continued the tradition.
We wore hats in church and, if not attending a church but visiting one as a tourist, certainly covered up shoulders. No portion of leg above the knee, meanwhile, was ever visible. You knew what to wear for tea with ancient relatives, when attending weddings and funerals, or heading out to posh drinks parties (as opposed to friends’ parties) and generally felt confident that your choice of clothing would be in line with that of everyone around you.
Times have changed and casual wear is now the normal day-to-day choice of attire even in those offices which promote ‘dress-down Friday’. We no longer expect men to wear morning suits at weddings and hats are rarely seen at funerals, if at all. Yet maybe we have been lulled into a false sense of security, because what we consider the norm here might not be the same overseas.
The husband and I are just back from an evening in Brussels, where we’d been invited to a cocktail party, followed by a private concert and dinner. The invitation asked for formal wear so the husband got into his dinner jacket and I went for black with some sparkles. We looked drop dead gorgeous. Oh dear, oh dear. We walked into the reception to find that formal wear in Brussels seems to consist of a suit and tie – there was even a man wearing a black polo neck jumper. A little bit of English humour and references to James Bond reduced any embarrassment but it reminded me of the time I advised an American colleague that his jacket would looked better on a golf course than at a business meeting in London. Equally, when working in the US, I was taken aside and told that I would not be taken seriously until my nails were manicured.
I think we need a handy international cultural guide. Did you know that it is regarded as a huge insult if you try to tip a Japanese taxi driver? In fact, tipping is a potential minefield for any traveller, whether business or leisure. In New York, you are expected to leave a tip which is arrived at by doubling the sales tax and then adding an amount to round it up (around 18%), whereas in France you often don’t leave a tip at all.
I wonder what the dress code would have been if the dinner I’d attended in Brussels was held in Paris or New York? Anyway, I have now learnt my lesson: next year it will be dress down and a little bit of advice seeking before attending any other overseas ‘do’.