Let me start by saying that I am a dyed in the wool traditionalist. I love a Black Tie event. White Tie even better. It is an opportunity to dress for a fairytale for a night. I do not believe that a pants suit and a Valentino gown that would make Old Hollywood drool should be at the same event. Having said that, why is it confusing as to what to wear? I think it is because you do, in fact, see a pants suit in the same room with a Valentino gown. People wear just about anything today, and that is precisely what causes the confusion - a dumbing down of formality. But why do that, when this should be an exciting occasion?!
White Tie - hold on to your hats, because this is the height of formality. There is no higher dress code - it is the crème da la crème. Your best ball gown combined with your best jewelry, the "up" hairstyle, the fanciest coat (if winter) that you own or can find. White gloves if you have them.
Black Tie - You want to look like the woman with James Bond on her arm. This is the chance to wear your full length gown, not just a "long dress". Think "exquisite". A shorter formal cocktail dress is acceptable, but why?! Again, I am a traditionalist. Black Tie means gown, not cocktail.
Black Tie Optional - Is this really a way for the event host to wimp out and not go full Black Tie? I don't know, but Oscar Wilde said it best, "you can never be overdressed or overeducated." Stick with Black Tie, and you will be the belle of the ball.
Cocktail - Now you can pull out that shorter dress. NOT MINI dress, however. Cocktail is the knee length area. Think the shorter styles of Sue Wong. If the fancy short dress is not in the wardrobe or budget, the little black dress is acceptable, but be sure to dress it up with jewelry, shoes, etc.
Are gowns expensive? Yes, they certainly can be. However, if you are a bargain hunter, you may be amazed at what you can find at the finer consignment shops. I have found several stunning gowns including a Teri Jon.
Above all else, make sure you enjoy yourself! Make sure you can move, sit, stand and dance in your chosen attire. Don’t forget the power of your hairstyle. And at the end of the night, if you are the only one in the room that followed the traditional dress code? Good on you! You will feel your best, and that will make for a fabulous night!