What is “colorful formal”? I keep seeing it on invitations for events this summer. Where did it come from, and what does it mean I should wear? — Alice, Waban, Mass.
“Colorful formal” is yet another newish dress code term that, like “creative black tie” or “razzle-dazzle” or “mountain elegant,” actually makes the recipient of such an invitation want to rip it into little shreds and stomp on them.
While such purportedly fun reinventions are meant, in theory, to free the imagination to romp happily in the fields of your closet, they simply cause more headaches, and the results often fall somewhere between party and costume party.
For an example, I give you any Met Gala in recent memory. The instructions to dress “in honor of Karl” at this year’s party produced Jared Leto in a furry cat suit. Last year, “Gilded Glamour” gave us Kim Kardashian squeezing herself into Marilyn Monroe’s actual “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress.
What is wrong, one wonders, with plain old “black tie” or “cocktail dress”? Those terms are generic enough to encompass a broad range of outfits (one person’s cocktail is another person’s lingerie), and the guardrails are relatively clear.
My guess is that they seem old-fashioned, perhaps associated with a more politically and socially hidebound time. The pivot to adjective-filled party dress codes is an attempt to flash some contemporary cultural cred. And while you can always take a stand against the prevailing trend, it’s more respectful of your hosts to make an effort to play by their rules.
Which brings us to “colorful formal,” which means pretty much what it says on the tin. Forget black, forget white (and gray, beige, taupe). Basically, this is not about staying basic — or neutral, which I guess makes some sense in the current political environment.
Still, it’s easier for women than men, since most men have a go-to formal suit that is either a black tux or a dark suit, while women have long wrestled with the issue of color psychology and what, say, wearing fuchsia means to those around you as opposed to bright red, which can still call to mind Nancy Reagan power dressing. They know it can be a shock to the psyche (yours and that of those who may be used to seeing you in a different light — or shade) to suddenly feel as if you are channeling Nancy Pelosi rather than Audrey Hepburn.
(As for the formal bit, that’s the easy part. It can be handled in fabric and accessories: chiffon, silk, taffeta, a bead or 10, and heels.)
In any case, that gender disparity doesn’t bother me too much. Slipping into a great teal suit is not a bad experience for any guy.
For inspiration, I suggest checking out Ryan Gosling, who has been modeling suits in a rainbow of shades, including mint green, sunshine yellow, burgundy, lavender and pink (to name a few), often balanced with the cool of a simple black T-shirt or white button-up.
And remember, obeying a dress code doesn’t have to mean making a lifetime commitment. You can always rent the persona — sorry, party look — rather than buy.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.