DC Style Watch: What “Black-Tie Optional” Really Means

Hi ladies!  I’m back with a new edition of DC Style Watch. Thank you SO much for all of your feedback last week – let’s see what you think about today’s topic involving those obscure “Black-Tie Optional” invites and your Little Black Dress (also known as your “LBD”).

Rose Byrne in a Dolce & Gabbana Little Black Dress via Instyle.com

So, I recently received tickets to attend two events associated with a convention in DC.  The first labeled “Salute to Military, Reception & Ball” is at 6pm on a Wednesday night at the W.E. Washington Convention Center. The second, called “Salute to Sports & Entertainment,” is on a Friday night at 7pm, also at the Convention Center.

I looked at the tickets and began to do a mental inventory of my closet to try to decide what to wear. The first event included the word “Ball” in the title, which made me think it was time for me to resuscitate the fabulous Carolina Herrera floor length gown (with a sweep train) that I purchased for a steal from the Off 5th outlet. However, a little voice in the back of my mind was whispering to me that that might be doing too much.

The second event had the word “Ball” conspicuously absent from the title. Since it was being put on by the same convention organizers, that made me think that a semi-formal cocktail dress was in order, although… it was a Friday night event that began even later than the first, so I wasn’t quite sure.

All of the pondering reminded me of a question I received on my Facebook page a couple of months ago.  It said, “Hi Coretta! Girl, I need some Gala vs. Black-Tie Optional Advice.”

In response, I discussed with my friend how sometimes the term “Gala” really doesn’t mean “Gala” and “Black-Tie optional” doesn’t always mean break out the ball gown. People are a little loose with their terminology these days and you can end up showing up to someone’s “Gala” in your ball gown, while everyone else is in club gear or in even more informal church clothes.

Maybe it’s the attorney in me, but I’m constantly reading into the context clues like the modus operandi of the host, style of invitation, time of day of the event and the location.  I told my friend that she should be good with either a cocktail dress or ball gown at a gala or black-tie optional event, but then I solicited the thoughts of some of my other fabulous friends.

Markette (you may have heard of her, lol) said, “You are absolutely right!  I’ve been to many a “Church Gala” and it’s not the same thing as a major company or organization hosting a gala. What I like to do is search for pictures from the previous year’s event to get an idea of what people wore. If it’s the first year, then call up the hostess and ask. I’ve done that, too. Hope this helps!”

My uber stylish DC attorney friend Christine also chimed in: “This is when having a classic black sheath dress comes in handy. You just can’t go wrong! You will never be overdressed or underdressed. Just add fabulous accessories, a simple black clutch purse and black high (and I do mean HIGH) heel shoes (maybe peep toe in the summer months – pedi please! lol) If hair is long – pull it into a bun. If hair is short, just make sure it’s off the face. You’ll look classy, elegant, and dressed to impress for sure! :-)”

In keeping with all of this good advice, I present you with some ways to mix up your accessories with your LBD with help from my Stella & Dot Eboutique:

Vintage Charm

Statement Pearls (Isn't this a dead ringer for Byrne's dress above?)

Simply Classic

Glam Couture

And, don’t forget that you don’t always have to go for black.  Another way to “mix it up” is to try a different color.

What about a little red dress?


Rachel Weisz in Valentino via Instyle.com

Or, a little white dress?

Mila Kunis in Elie Saab via Instyle.com

And, if you’re looking for some stylish and affordable high heels, check out the Shoe Dazzle link on the right side of this page or look no further than the image below.

Get Kate Middleton's Style for Less

Which style option is yours?  Do you like more than one? Leave me a comment with your two cents below.

Isn’t the beauty of the LBD (or LRD or LWD), that you can dress it up or down with accessories, like the ones from Stella & Dot? I love that!  You can even make changes to your outfit on the spot if you arrive at the event and it turns out that your dress code thoughts were not the same as the hosts.

Your mission: inventory your closet and see how you can mix up your LBD before your next event.  I bet you can make it look like an entirely new dress simply with your accessories.  We’ll be watching (with compliments)!

Your jewelry girl,

Coretta, Independent Stylist for Stella & Dot


Coretta Johnson Gray

About the Author
  1. Sabine Schropp

    Love your styling ideas ! Thanks so much

  2. Ericka Haddock

    Nice presentation Coretta! I love how you put the pieces together for all walks of life. Great job sista! Keep moving, you will go far!


  3. John Coleman

    Great read, Coretta!

  4. Sheree

    I absolutely LOVE the second look from the Stella and Dot Eboutique. The dress is fabulous and the accessories look great. The entire look is classic and you can’t go wrong with that one. BTW please post pictures of what you decide to wear. I’m sure you will shine.

  5. Kendra

    Love all of the different looks! Something for everyone!

  6. Dana

    I love all of the looks…great article!!

  7. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Thanks Sabine! I confess that the great minds at Stella & Dot helped put these ideas together. But I wouldn’t mind trying them all!

  8. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Thanks for stopping by Ericka! I think the options are definitely there for whatever mood you’re in that evening. I appreciate the support!

  9. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Thanks John! Do we get a guy seal of approval on these looks? lol!

  10. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Sheree, you and I are on the same page. The second look is me all day! And I love the neckline on the dress. Very flattering.

    I will make sure I have the camera ready to capture my look. I probably should also capture the various interpretations of “Gala” from the other guests too. How much you wanna bet there will be daywear to full on Oscar glitz and everything in between? lol!

  11. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Thanks Kendra! I agree, there is definitely something no matter your flavor.

  12. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Thanks so much Dana! Seems that everyone could find something that works for them with these style inspirations. 🙂

  13. Trish

    LOVE the looks (especially the EBoutique ones)!

  14. Coretta Johnson Gray

    I’m with you Trish! Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Tiffany

    You are right! People tend to be very loose with terminology. Nevertheless, thank you for giving us some classic, stylish options. Great “wingwomen” friends you have in Markette and Christine. 🙂

  16. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Tiffany – you’re telling the truth. I’m going to need someone to consult their Emily Post to help their guests out, although, that might not help because half of the guests haven’t consulted Emily either. SMH.

    And, yes, those are truly some great Wingwomen there! I’m totally feeling the reference to last week’s post. Lol!

  17. Christine Platt Patrick

    I love the idea of trying a little red dress! I’m a fan of the lbd because it’s safe. I’m going to make and effort to be a little more bold and daring with the “little dress” and go with color next time. Great post! 🙂

  18. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Ah! My work here is done! The student has become the teacher. 😉

  19. Lynn

    Great advise Coretta!

  20. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Thank you Lynn!

  21. Melanie Jackson

    Hey Coretta,

    The advice you gave was spot on! Every woman should have a LBD in their closet for the last minute soirees that may pop up. I love the way you paired the looks with jewelry!- Well done!

  22. Coretta Johnson Gray

    Thanks Melanie! The LBD is definitely a basic staple for the fashionista’s wardrobe. Thanks for stopping by!