Society is critical — dress accordingly.

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Presenting young women to society (and eligible bachelors) via a debutante ball is a tradition that has a centuries-long history. Despite the debut's European roots, debutante balls are commonly associated with the South. And while the debs aren't necessarily looking for suitable husbands when they're presented, debutante balls are still a big deal in our region.

If one day an invitation for a debutante ball ends up in your mailbox, you might wonder, "What do I wear to this thing?" or "What does ‘black tie' actually mean?" Keep reading to find out what to wear to a debutante ball (without getting disapproving glares from Southern debutantes of the past).

Before you do any impulse shopping or start tearing through your closet for an outfit, you must do one very important thing: Read the invitation. And really read it. Because somewhere on that invitation in that beautiful cursive font, there should be a few words that indicate the dress code for the ball. Here are some dress code examples and what you and your date should wear in each scenario.

Black Tie

"Black tie" is commonly used terminology for a formal event, but in modern times, it raises a lot of wardrobe questions.

For Men

The phrase "black tie" is pretty obvious, and if your date can't figure out that aspect of his wardrobe for a black tie event, you might want to find a new date.

Traditionally, the black tie was solely a bow tie. Some modern definitions of black tie attire allow a black long tie, but that's not necessary at a Southern debutante ball. The crowd at a Southern debutante ball is going to be more traditional, where "black tie" is synonymous with "black bow tie." Aside from the black tie, men should wear a tuxedo with a black dinner jacket and trousers to match, which typically have a single braid down the seam. A man in black tie attire should wear a white formal shirt with a turndown collar and accompanying shirt studs and cufflinks. Tuxedos often look more put-together when paired with a black cummerbund or waistcoat, and should typically include one in your ensemble for a Southern debutante ball. Suspenders are always an option under a dinner jacket, although not required. Finally, any man in black tie attire should wear black patent leather, well-shined shoes, and tall black dress socks.

If he doesn't own a tux, he can rent one or opt to buy one. In that case, the employees at your local formalwear shop will know what to give him if he says "black tie."

For Women

Black tie attire is, along with every other fashion-related issue, more complicated for women. The black tie dress code lines are more blurry, more "grey tie," if you will, when it comes to what women should wear.

One common misconception is that black tie also means black dress. While women's black tie looks should be classy and traditional (and if the event is in the winter, darker colors would be more appropriate), don't be afraid of color! Well, except one color. Many debutante balls require the debutantes to wear white gowns (some even require a full skirt). Even though there's not a written rule against guests wearing white dresses, much like one wouldn't wear a white dress to a wedding, skip the white attire for this occasion too.

Most of the confusion around what "black tie" means for women is attached to dress length. Traditionally, women only wore long evening gowns at black tie events. Modern black tie attire for women often translates to a very dressy cocktail dress. This is one of those situations in which you may need to consult the friend who invited you or someone who's been to this deb ball before. You wouldn't want to show up in a long dress to find all the other women in short dresses, and vise versa. However, when it comes to formal events, it's always better to be overdressed than underdressed.

Whether you go long, short, or tea-length, keep it appropriate. A formal debutante ball is not the place for a low-cut, high-slit, tight-fitting dress. If you do go with a short dress, don't go mini — keep it an inch or so above the knee — but tea-length would be more appropriate and safe. If you opt for a short dress instead of a gown, it needs to be on the dressier end of short dresses. Remember, your date will be in a tuxedo, so you shouldn't be in a sundress.

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For some black tie events, dressy cocktail trousers are appropriate, but with a traditional debutante ball, be cautious with wearing pants. And the same goes for a trendy jumpsuit. Some jumpsuits are made in dressier fabrics and are showcased along with evening gowns in stores. Get a feel for the city or town where the ball is — if this is a debutante ball that's extremely historic, stick to the strictest definition of black tie and wear a long dress to be safe. But if it's a more laid-back event, a nice short or tea-length dress or dressy jumpsuit might work. As always, you can ask someone who's been to this event before, and they should point you in the right direction.

White Tie

"White tie" is the most formal, most traditional, and a seldom-used dress code for modern formal events. However, in some Southern cities where deb traditions go way back, the debutante ball will probably be white tie, and you don't want to show up improperly dressed.

For Men

If you're getting the hang of this, you will realize that for white tie attire, men should wear a white bowtie. However, that's not the only thing that's different between white tie and black tie. Instead of a black dinner jacket, men wear a black tailcoat jacket or evening dress coat, often referred to as "tails." Because the front of the tailcoat is higher cut than a dinner jacket, the trousers for white tie hit higher on the waist. One unique element of the white tie ensemble for men is a white waistcoat. The waistcoat is not interchangeable with a cummerbund for white tie events. It should be shorter than the front of the tailcoat but long enough to cover the waistline of the trousers, as no belts are worn with a white tie outfit. The shirt should be a formal white shirt with a stiff bosom and winged collar. Traditionally, studs and cufflinks worn for a white tie event are mother of pearl, and while that material isn't required, studs and cufflinks should be worn. Suspenders are more of a requirement with a white tie look than a black tie look and should come with a white tie ensemble if you're renting. Shoes should be well-shined patent leather, worn with tall, formal black socks.

Sometimes the fathers or escorts of the debutantes will be required to wear white gloves, but other male guests shouldn't feel obligated to wear gloves. Again, if your date is renting or buying, the employees at your local formalwear shop will know what to give him if he says "white tie."

For Women

White tie attire has a much clearer interpretation for women than black tie. White tie is the most formal attire option, so only a full-length ball gown will do.

For some white tie events, ladies are required to wear white gloves (short or full-length), but for most debutante balls, the debs will be the only ones in gloves. Don't worry about wearing gloves as a guest unless it's explicitly written on the invitation.

Black Tie Optional

While we would be surprised if a Southern debutante ball had a "black tie optional" dress code, be prepared for anything, so here's how to interpret that vague, unhelpful phrase.

For Men and Women

It's best to show up to a formal event or Southern debutante ball overdressed than underdressed, so if an invitation says black tie optional, you and your date should wear traditional black tie attire described above. If your guy doesn't own a tux or doesn't want to rent one, be sure he wears a nice, dark suit, not a light daytime suit or coat and tie with khakis.

A Few More Things

Don't wear your highest heels to a debutante ball — you'll regret it. One of the best parts about a debutante ball is the dancing, so you don't want to be on the sidelines because your feet hurt. And if you're in a long dress, no one can see how high your heels are anyway.

Even if the debutante ball is a summer event, it's a good idea to have a pashmina or light shawl to cover your shoulders when you arrive. If the event is in the winter, a fur wrap or coat or a dressy overcoat will do as well.

So if you receive an invite to a Southern debutante ball, have fun getting dolled up for it and enjoy being a part of a historic tradition.

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