A Guide to Gala Etiquette
To quote the French-Algerian philosopher, author, and Nobel Prize recipient, Albert Camus, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” Gala season is upon us and San Francisco’s society, philanthropists, fashionphiles, and enthusiasts of all things symphony and opera are scurrying to their favorite ateliers, tailors, and couture boutiques for that perfect, memorable ensemble sure to induce the strobing flashbulbs of photographers on the step-and-repeat’s red carpet.
Among all the chaos in getting ready and being coifed for the big event, newcomers and gala veterans alike often ask me about basic gala etiquette, so I’m happy to address some of the top gala etiquette questions and add some tips that some may have never thought to ask beforehand, along with some glamorous gala looks.
The proper attire for the occasion, formal black tie versus white tie. These days “black tie” or “black tie optional” seems to be the norm and usually will suffice for most events. As the name applies, a black tie affair for gentlemen consists of a black tuxedo worn with a black bow tie and tuxedo loafers. The black tuxedo jacket may be substituted for a chic, formal dinner jacket in a color to fit your preference or the evening’s theme. Black tie optional (as the name suggests) may consist of a tuxedo or dark suit with a bow tie or tie in the color of your choice.
White tie is the most formal and traditionally adheres to white tie evening tails (or a black dinner jacket) worn with a white waistcoat worn underneath; a formal, white, French cuff shirt; and a hand-tied white bowtie. For those who need to hear this, gentlemen, you’re adults now: learn how to tie a bow. There are hundreds of easy-to-learn tutorials on YouTube to guide you through it. For ladies, a full-length ball gown is traditionally appropriate for black or white tie affairs. A ball gown or a smart, knee-length cocktail dress is perfect for a black-tie optional event.
Familiarize yourself with the cause and organization. I am confident we can all agree the arts are a valuable benefit to our culture and society. They broaden our intellect and are core to our growth as a country and our civilization. With nonprofit organizations, we often wonder where the contributions are used, where they are distributed, and who benefits. The event’s confirmation email or correspondence generally offers a contributions list or a hyperlink to one.
Do I need to make a charitable contribution if I’m a guest at a table? Your table host has purchased the table, and you aren’t committed to donate any money. In the case of a ball, you are there to simple enjoy yourself and the performance.
However, if you are at a fundraiser and if you feel compelled to do so, then by all means contribute what you can. If an item being presented in auction speaks to you or that wine tasting trip through Napa, California or that tropical dream destination, then why not use that vacation money to both help the organization and pay for that trip? If you spend $10,000 on a vacation, then let that be your highest bid.
I have food allergies, how do I convey my dietary needs? Whether you are a guest, sponsor, or host, the organization will either email or mail you correspondence with a menu selection beforehand, such as the beef, fish, or vegetarian option. These days, dietary restriction concerns are commonplace, and there is often an option on the menu selection to list allergies and needs. In cases where there isn’t, contact the organization or the host.
Be mindful of your alcohol intake. Galas and balls are festive places to be, and the endless hosted bar may be tempting. I get it, you just gave a huge contribution, and “getting my money’s worth” may have crossed your mind. Also, everyone is having a good time, and you want to join in on the festivities with some liquid courage to help you along the way. Being uninhibited is great, fabulous even … to a point. Drinking alcohol dampens your hearing, so after a couple drinks, unbeknown to you, your voice amplifies. Not only does that make you come off as obnoxious, it also disturbs others and hinders their fun. You are at an elegant affair wearing that new Oscar de la Renta; act the part and don’t be that (déclassé) guy or gal.
I need to leave the event early. Is it rude to do so? That depends. With the busy gala season schedule, many of us often inadvertently or purposely book ourselves to attend multiple events in one evening, especially if the event falls on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s understandable that we may need to spread ourselves to meet our social obligations. I think my friend, San Francisco’s former mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr., mastered the technique best. He’d have a cocktail at one event, salad at another, then the main course somewhere else. With that said, when planning your exit, read the room! If someone is in the middle of a passionate speech about the needs of the organization, then stay in your seat until there is a window of opportunity to quietly thank your host (and tablemates) and leave discreetly.
Introduce yourself and others and include them in conversation. Nothing is more awkward than standing there trying to be part of a conversation with a stranger with nothing to talk about. Find things in common with others and use that directly after introductions. “David, have you met Gertrude Foster? Gertrude, David Rodriguez. David’s son is also going to Stanford. Gertrude’s daughter is studying economics.” It works every time. Gertrude and David have something to talk about—and it sometimes gives you a means of escaping to somewhere else! These social occasions are meant to bring people together. If you are the one connecting others, people will gravitate to that, making you the one whom everybody wants to be with.
Most of all, have fun and enjoy the company you’re with and always show your gratitude to your host and be sure to say thank you to them before leaving. One thing that I found to be a sweet and much appreciated gesture is to send your host a flower arrangement in the color scheme of the event with a note of appreciation that includes a fun reminder of the evening. Stay classy.
(Featured image: September 8 – Atmosphere at San Francisco Opera Ball 2023 (Photo – Drew Altizer Photography)