Is black tie ever really optional?

Black tie optional ... or mandatory?
Black tie optional ... or mandatory?

It showed up in your mailbox early one spring evening, printed on heavy cream paper, fancily embossed with details and enclosed in an envelope painstakingly addressed by a professional calligrapher.

From the envelope alone, it's obvious this piece of mail isn't your average dental bill. In fact, it's the invitation to your cousin's upcoming country club wedding and reception. You scan the details so you can make an informed RSVP decision. Both the date and time fit nicely into your schedule, you know where the venue is, and you've even been granted the option of bringing a guest to meet your extended family.

Suddenly, you spy those three little words that wreak havoc on the hearts of men and women everywhere: "black tie optional." Your heart sinks. Is the standard suit/tie combo OK for this affair, or is a tux really necessary? Interpreting black tie isn't a whole lot easier for women, either.

What's a wedding guest to do with such ambivalent fashion directives? Keep reading for tips on how to interpret the phrase if such an event looms on your social horizon.