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What does a dress code of tenue de ville mean?

Dear Mr. Smith: I've been invited to a summer function in Ottawa, and the dress code is " tenue de ville ." How formalis that? Will a stylish summer sports jacket do? Tenue de ville means slightly more than just what you would wear in a city, especially since cities are no longer zones of mandatory formality, and a lot of people think their silver polyester basketball shorts work at cinema and restaurant alike.

In France, this phrase means business attire - i.e., a suit and tie. And the more important the event, the darker the suit should be. (Note that in recent group photos of the G8 leaders, taken even in Italian mid-July heat, everyone is in charcoal, black or navy.) Now, summer in Ottawa can be steamy too, and I'm assuming your function is a festive one. So you can lighten up a little and wear a paler summer-weight suit or a summer sports jacket. But I would say, depending on who you are dining with, that it is still prudent to keep the tie. There may be ambassadors around, after all.

For a truly European view, I asked a mentor of mine, a professor of French literature who grew up in France and Germany, how he would interpret such an invitation, and he responded with his typical erudition.

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"You could wear a summer suit as long as it is elegant," he writes. "No rumpledness. Personally, I would tend to wear a suit (of any colour) with a tie. It's a way of honouring one's host. But I am of another age. Incidentally, it's a good principle of elegance and of class to try not to be noticed. Wearing a casual outfit will get you looked at."

How interesting that nowadays people fear the opposite - that being well-dressed will get you looked at. But it's important to remember that elegance does not equal flash.

Ask Mr. Smith a question, or view the complete archive, at Russell Smith's online advisory service, DailyXY.com.

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