received an e-mail last week from Laurie in Philadelphia describing a sadly all-too-common scenario among Black Tie Guide readers:
- the reader is invited to rare black-tie event and conscientiously commits to understanding and honouring the details of the dress code
- the reader is elated to discover that the Guide makes understanding the code a breeze
- the reader is crushed to discover that most retailers’ inventory make honouring the code impossible
Like so many others, Laurie ventured to her local shopping malls only to discover sad substitutes for proper tuxedos being enthusiastically pitched by salespeople who wouldn’t recognize a correct tuxedo if it skydived into their store alongside the Queen of England. She even got into an argument with a JoS. A. Bank salesman who claimed that center-vent jackets had been correct formal attire since the 1980s. (Such arguements are a common experience for readers, making me wonder how many tuxedo salespeople would like to wring my neck for giving their customers a far better education than their own.)
What was not typical about Laurie’s experience was that it was in preparation for an official Inaugural Ball. Intrigued, I asked her if she would be willing to provide an insider’s view of such a prestigious event. She graciously agreed and what she reported back was surprising to say the least.
First off, the ball accommodates 35,000 people. Yes, thirty five thousand. Being a professional meeting planner I wondered how that many people could be be provided with a formal meal and a live glimpse of the president. Well, it turns out that the “ball” is really more of closed-circuit cattle call:
- even though they arrived when the doors opened 90 minutes prior to the 8:30 start time, Laurie and her husband still had to spend an hour snaking through a line outside in the bitterly cold winter night (particularly unpleasant for ladies in gowns and heels)
- the event was spread over the upper two floors of the massive Washington Convention Center (with the first floor reserved for the 5,000 lucky service members & family invited to the Commander-In-Chief Ball); even with all that real estate guests were still pretty much packed shoulder-to-shoulder
- the second floor had a concrete floor, cash bar and Cheeze Its while the more generous donors on the third floor were treated to broadloom, an open bar and a mediocre hot buffet; food had to be eaten standing up as there was no room for seating
- the live entertainment alternated between the two floors and was broadcast throughout both so guests could see all the acts (although the Commander-in-Chief Ball had additional performances that were not necessarily broadcast beyond the first floor)
- oddly, while the President appeared live on the second floor the big spenders on the third had to settle for a video feed
As for the male garb, Laurie reported that there were some men in suits & ties and many in the typical sloppy interpretations of black tie seen at weddings and red-carpet ceremonies across the country: long ties, two-button jackets, five-button vests, uncovered shirt waists and so on. But what do you expect when the guest of honour himself wore his tired business-suit-cum-tuxedo and repeated his white bow tie gaffe from the first inauguration. Back then I wondered whether his choices were born of an ignorance of formal etiquette (having not been raised as part of the ruling class like most of his predecessors) or just plain indifference to it. Having spent the past four years as leader of the free world we can safely rule out ignorance this time around.