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The question

I recently received an invitation to a dinner that read 'black tie optional.' I consulted a formalwear rental shop; they said that if I didn't want to wear a tuxedo, I could rent a black suit from them. I also have my own very smart grey suit. Which is appropriate?

The answer

What do people do with their Saturday mornings? It takes exactly two minutes to read this column and I have been answering this question for the past 10 years. How is it possible that hosts continue to baffle their friends with these confusing party invitations? One more time, since it is gala season: "Black tie optional" is not helpful. It usually means the hosts want a black-tie party but don't want to force anyone impecunious to spend money on an outfit. The bottom line is that they do want you to dress formally, but of course they will not turn anyone away or make anyone feel uncomfortable about it.

This should go without saying and applies to all dress codes: Even uncomplicated dress codes are meant to be helpful, not stern. The rental shop is stringing you a line about the black suit: If you don't want to wear a dinner jacket, your smart grey suit is acceptable. But why not use this excuse to dress like a movie star for once? It's fun. And forget about renting. Invest in your own dinner jacket and you will wear it forever; it never goes out of style.

Russell Smith's latest novel is Girl Crazy . Have a fashion question? E-mail