The Black Tie Test

The first black tie charity function I ever went to was both glamorous and educational.  It gave me a glimpse at an incredible lifestyle – and taught me some hard life lessons that I remember well to this day.

Here’s the story:

About 15 years ago when I was living in Houston, the nonprofit organization I was working for at the time celebrated its 50th anniversary.  To commemorate the event – and to raise money – they decided to a hold a benefit gala at a luxury hotel.

Excitement buzzed through the office in the weeks preceding the event as everyone was called to take part in the preparations.  From handling phones calls to stuffing envelopes, no job was too small as the donations started rolling in.

A few days before the gala, the Fundraising Director and the Event Chairwoman called four of us into a private room and closed the door.    They wanted us to work at the gala, signing in guests and giving table assignments, but they didn’t want us to tell the other women in the office.  It was an odd request.  But because we were excited about being asked to go, we complied – even though we were uncomfortable with the secrecy.

The big night came and the gala was amazing.  The ballroom was beautifully decorated, and it was fun to see the people I worked with all dressed up in formal attire.  The excitement continued as the guests arrived.  Houston is a VERY social city, with both newspaper and television society reporters, and it was exciting to come face-to-face with the “who’s who” of Houston society, many of whom I’d read about in the society pages.

The clothes were amazing, the jewels were incredible, and the polish and finesse of the society matrons made for some fascinating people-watching.  The quasi-hugs, the “air-kissing,” the jockeying for position around the wealthy, handsome bachelors – it was fun to watch, and about as far removed from my day job of crunching numbers as the Assistant Controller as it got.  It was like stepping into an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

The wine flowed freely.  As the four of us who had worked the sign-in tables were walking into the ballroom for dinner, I handed the paperwork to the Fundraising Director.  Seeing that she was a bit tipsy, I took advantage of the situation to ask her why she had asked the four of us to work (I was in my 20’s; there was one in her 30’s and two in their 60’s) and no one else.

Her answer surprised us.  “Because we figured you wouldn’t embarrass us at a formal event.  And see, we were right,” she said, pointing to our evening gowns.

As she went to her table and we found ours, we weren’t quite sure what to make of her answer.  Embarrass them?  Who was “them?”  What was she talking about?  We spent the better part of dinner debating the comment, never arriving at a good answer.  At the end of the evening, as we were leaving, the Fundraising Director pulled the four of us together once more.

“Remember,” she warned.  “Not a word of this to anyone at the office.”  We agreed.

That was Saturday night.  The secret lasted until about 10 am Monday morning, when the Chairwoman came to the office with pictures of the big event, showing – among other things – the four of us signing in socialites and chatting up board members.

It was the shot heard ‘round the office.  Those who had been excluded demanded to know why.  It was a tense couple of days at work.

In the following weeks and months, however, my job began to change dramatically.  My boss hired someone to take part of my workload.  She offered to pay for classes so that I could upgrade some of my skills.  I was asked to report to a few board meetings.

When I wondered aloud what was going on, she smiled and said, “You don’t know?  Why, you passed the test.”

I had no idea what she was talking about.

It turns out that the black tie event was, among other things, a test to see how I handled myself in a high-profile social setting.  Since the executives at the agency frequently entered that world and the board members and higher-ups were looking to expand my duties, they wanted to make sure I was up to the task.  Fortunately, I passed.  It was the beginning of some very good things with that company, including travel, a promotion, and other black tie events.

Now I tell this story not to say, “Look what I did,” but rather, “Here’s what’s possible when you know how to dress properly.”

Although I didn’t know it then, companies do this kind of testing all the time with new hires and promotions, to “test the chops” of potential candidates.  You may look great on paper, but do you also have the manners and social savvy required for that level?  Meals, social events, and sporting activities are favorite testing grounds for such skills.

Until then, I had never given the matter much thought.  I assumed that everyone had had those things drilled into them by their mother, as I had.  “Sit up straight”, “Chew with your mouth closed,” and “Don’t wear this, wear that,” were all frequently heard phrases in our house until those skills were mastered.

Since then, I’ve learned better.  I’ve dealt with people from a wide range of backgrounds and can quickly surmise how far they’re likely to go based on how they present themselves.  Like the judges on the “Idol” competitions, it’s easy to see who has talent and who hasn’t, who will “clean up” well and who won’t.  From clothing and manners to speech and deportment, I now understand why some people never make it out of the mailroom, why some women only seem to attract one-night stands, and why others could have everything they ever wanted – if only they had a little confidence in themselves.

Now I’m not suggesting I have all the answers – far from it.  But experience has taught me a few things, just like you.  Look around the next time you’re in a crowd and make some observations.  How are people dressed?  How are they behaving?  What are their table manners like?

How well would they fair at a black tie event? 

Would they do okay?  Or, like some of the workers in my office, would they never be invited to find out?  Would they be ticked at not being included?  Or would they stop to wonder why they weren’t?

Would you?

How you dress communicates SO MUCH about you that it’s almost scary.  From education and background to income and social status, you announce your position in life every time you walk out the door.

So what are you saying?  That you’re prepared for any good thing that comes your way?  Or that you prefer to “do your own thing” until someone tells you they’re looking? 

Here’s a secret:  they’re looking.  ALL the time – whether you realize it or not.

So don’t sell yourself short.  If you work hard and are kind to others, you deserve every good thing that comes your way.  Dressing appropriately all the time will help you get there.  I guarantee it.

And who knows?  Like Cinderella, you may even find yourself with an invitation to a ball — that’s just the beginning of a whole new life.

Try it yourself and see!

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