What to Wear to the Inaugural Balls: Long or Short? Black Tie or Business Suit?

Advice on the all-important question from an inauguration vet.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

One of the biggest questions of any inauguration is what to wear to the inaugural parties and balls, regardless of whether they are official, unofficial, or private. For women the dilemma is long or short? For men it is black tie or business suit? As with almost anything that has to do with dressing, it depends on a number of factors. Just because an event says “black tie” does not mean you’ll get tossed out the door if you show up in a cocktail dress. What it means is the event is a special occasion and you are expected to dress well. Beyond that, there’s a range of options.

First and foremost, dress so you are comfortable—which so often begins and ends with the feet. A determining factor of what you wear should be the weather, including whether you’ll be exposed to it a lot and how you are getting around. Having a car and driver makes it easier to get more intricately done up. She can wear her strappy platform stilettos, and he can don his patent or velvet evening slippers. But this kind of footwear becomes impractical if there’s going to be a lot of walking involved or if there’s a chance of precipitation (right now the forecast is dry and cool). Men can get away with a lot more in this regard, since fewer people check out their feet to see if their shoes are as formal as their attire. So go ahead and wear the comfortable black slip-ons or lace-ups (or even all-black trainers), but make sure they are clean and, if leather, polished. Women carrying an evening clutch or bag that’s larger than a minaudière can slip in a pair of foldable ballet flats—if they can save your feet it’s worth the effort.

Women who attend the Texas Black Tie and Boots ball have it made, because footwear doesn’t get much more comfortable than a good pair of cowboy boots—and some can seriously out-flash a stiletto.

Since it will be cold you’ll wearing a coat, and if you go to multiple events each evening, you will be checking said coat multiple times. This can be arduous. Often, for galas in the winter, I wear a coat that’s nice but not special, and when I get to the event I turn it inside out, roll it into a ball, and stuff it under a table. That way, when I’m ready to bolt, there’s no long wait at coat check—I just grab my coat from where it was stashed. Another reason not to take a valuable or special coat is that there’s always the chance—with so many hundreds of people attending everything—that it could get lost. If you do check your coat, keep your gloves tucked inside one of the pockets, and if you are wearing a scarf, make sure it is well secured in one of the sleeves.

Now the big questions: long or short? Black tie or business suit? The last time I wore a long dress to an inaugural ball was Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985, and I felt overdressed for the occasion and place (the DC Armory). Yes, First Lady Nancy Reagan was in a long, sparkly sheath, but she was up onstage getting whirled around by the President. Most of the people down on the floor, staring, were in all manner of dress. I’ve gone with short or tea-length ever since. If you are doing only one event, and it’s in a glamorous location such as a hotel or museum, a long dress is appropriate. Otherwise, if you have multiple events, go with short and make a more formal statement with jewelry, hair, and makeup. In truth, most of the “balls” are overcrowded, people are jammed together, and the pretty hem of that full-length evening gown will get stomped on. Also when climbing in and out of cars or on and off the Metro, short does better. Another thing to consider about a long evening dress: It’s a big investment. Will you wear it on other occasions? I find in Washington that at most black-tie social events of the past decade, the majority of women wear short or three-quarter length. Long gowns are essential to the wardrobe only if you think you will be attending state dinners at the White House or anything white tie.

The late senator Ted Kennedy used to show up at almost every routine black-tie event in Washington wearing a business suit. It was his style. He knew it didn’t make a difference. No one was going to throw him out, and no one is going to throw you out if you show up at a gala in a handsome dark suit. It may even make more sense, if you plan in one night to attend a mix of casual, cocktail, and black-tie events. If you are attending either of the two “official” inaugural balls at the DC Convention Center, black tie or military dress, if you have it, may be the better choice.

One of the biggest lessons of dressing for evenings out in Washington is that it is better to be slightly underdressed than overdressed. Overdressed is just plain awkward. Underdressed can be chic.

Again, when in doubt, go with comfort and your personal taste. Dress within your budget. Put on a smile and have fun.

Editor’s Note: While Carol’s advice is high on the practical, editor Garrett Graff maintains that dress codes should be observed strictly as a matter of decorum—black tie means a tuxedo for men, a full-length gown for women. He subscribes to the Jack Donaghy style and did a fist-bump when in the season three premiere of Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess remarked on Lord Grantham wearing merely black tie, instead of white tie, to a dinner, saying, “You look dressed for a barbecue!” Come on, folks, it’s a presidential inauguration. Wear the real thing.