H.E. Mr. Jose De Bouza Serrano, Ambassador of Portugal, H.E. Ms. Marta Betanzos, Ambassador of Spain in Portugal and H.E. Mr. Luís Albuquerque Veloso, Deputy of Portuguese Protocol, before pandemic times.
By Alexandra Paucescu
It is said that it takes only seven seconds to form an opinion about your counterpart, when you first meet a new person.
We live in the 21st century but appearances still matter, etiquette and social norms are important, especially when it comes to the diplomatic world.
We have two eyes, two ears and just one mouth. So we should learn to listen, observe and talk only when it is appropriate and relevant. Behaving properly and creating a correct and pleasant look are also critical aspects of diplomacy. Clothes have always been considered and recognized as real tools of soft power, many times even being capable of making a strong diplomatic point.
Originally started as an exclusive role for nobility, diplomacy has undergone transformations over time, in all aspects. The fashion style and etiquette were no exception. Diplomacy is a highly hierarchical area, and perhaps that is why a few hundred years ago diplomats and senior foreign state representatives sent to various royal houses, had the allure and gala uniforms somehow inspired from those of career soldiers, but far more impressive and elaborate.
The first official diplomatic uniforms were initially introduced in France by 1781 and it is generally accepted that they became a custom in the 18th century, widely adopted by all European countries. The fashion style was then rapidly followed by other nations’ foreign representatives from Asia (especially Japan) and Latin America, each country trying to bring its own styling and national related symbols to the diplomatic festive costume.
Whether it was made of dark blue tailcoats with standing collars and embroidered velvet (in Prussia), dark turquoise or white coats (in Italy), black wool frock coats with gold-embroidered paulownia flowers (in Japan) or black coats with gold stars on each side (in the USA), they all had in common the elegant bicorn (or tricorne) hat, decorated with white rich plumes, perfectly completing those elegant gala outfits. The costumes were also differentiated by rank, so that the more senior diplomats had much more sophisticated outfits, richer embroideries and more feathers, long swords with ivory handle, plated with gold and precious stones. Also, I should add that the consular officials had less festive and less elaborated outfits, comparing to diplomats.
The gala uniforms were paraded to special occasions and at the royal court audiences, balls and opera nights, but they gradually disappeared, ending this tradition almost entirely after World War II. A few countries, such as Denmark, Spain, Sweden or Great Britain, still maintain it though. Their high-ranking diplomats still use the official diplomatic uniforms for high-class events, state dinners or the traditional presentation of credentials, at the beginning of each diplomatic posting as ambassadors. And especially these days, it is a real pleasure to see them, like a splash of color, bringing the flavor of old times back to us.
However, by presenting the credentials to the head of state, the ambassador and its diplomatic crew will always adopt a protocol style with elegant tailcoat or national costume.
Diplomatic life is generally full of high-level events, lunches and dinners, receptions and conferences. Invitations to such protocol events are almost always accompanied by the related dress code, which should be followed accordingly. Personal appearances are of great importance to diplomatic world, without making it shallow. Always inform yourself before you participate, about the meaning of the dress code, as inappropriate clothing might be interpreted as an affront to the host and as a lack of respect to the rest of the participants.
Time of day also plays a great role when it comes to adequate clothing. Afternoon functions, addressed as ‘Tea’, ‘Champagne glass’, ‘Garden party’, ‘Lunch’ or ‘Cocktail’, are usually considered less formal. Meanwhile, evening receptions and diplomatic gatherings, as National Day celebrations, state or gala dinners, royal and diplomatic balls or opera nights, are considered high etiquette events, usually requiring more formal clothing for men and women both.
As a general and easy rule to remember, I would say that the more ceremonial the occasion and the later it is during the day, the more elegant and sophisticated you should look.
‘White Tie’ is established as the most formal. It usually requires elegant tailcoats and white ties for men and long evening gowns with above-elbow gloves for women. Small and delicate bags are also part of the perfect feminine outfit for such occasions. ‘White Tie’ is usually recommended when attending balls, opera nights and most formal dinners. Diplomatic corps annual receptions traditionally held at the beginning of each year, where ambassadors, high-commissioners and government officials are invited, are the best examples.
Part of this is also sometimes required in some countries when being formally accredited to the president or monarch.
‘Black Tie’ means usually wearing tuxedo with a bow tie for men and also floor-length dresses for women.
‘Dinner jacket’ means a dark-colored jacket or dark suit for men. Always wear these with dark polished shoes and dark socks, long enough so that one cannot see your bare legs while you are seated!
‘Cocktail’ means a bit more relaxed but it is still a very elegant style. It is normally associated with dark suits and silk ties for men and knee-length elegant dresses with (preferable) high heels for women. Remember: boots are usually not considered adequate, no matter the season or weather conditions and peep-toes or sandals are not recommended! And, I should also add that one would have to avoid wearing black ties, except for mourning occasions.
‘Casual’ does not mean ‘jeans and sneakers’, as one might think… nor very short dresses, deep cleavage for women or shorts and short-sleeve shirts for men. No odd or ‘too modern’ combinations, as for instance suits and sneakers worn together, are encouraged, when it comes to diplomatic events.
When being invited to a breakfast, lunch, daytime function, garden party or tea-time meeting, you should wear a light grey or beige suit (especially on summer days) if you are a man and a daytime, but still elegant dress, if you are a woman. Depending on the type of event, sometimes hats and gloves may be required for women (usually specified on the invitation). However, always keep the hat or fascinator on for the whole duration of the gathering; don’t take it off during the reception.
A special talk should be about each country’s traditional costume. These colorful costumes, hand-embroidered by incredibly talented and many times anonymous artists, in long hours of handicraft work, have deep emotional meaning for each one of us, because they relate directly to our own cultural and national identity. They can generally be worn on the occasion of the National Day or at other diplomatic events, where this dress code is specified or required. And it is such nice scenery to see the diversity and beauty in these costumes, when gathered!
I confess I had never had a national costume before going on our first diplomatic mission, but I have more than one now and wore them proudly on the appropriate occasions.
However, when not sure about what to wear or not very clearly specified on the invitation, my advice is to better ask while confirming the attendance!
No matter what time of day or occasion, it is preferable that you should avoid wearing excessive perfume or jewelry.
Posture is of great importance, too. A confident attitude will always send this message about you to the others. Respect and admiration are earned by your actions and behavior, and can be so easily damaged by moments of negligence and misconduct.
Always button up your jacket while standing, only when seated you may let it loose. Don’t play with your hands, don’t gesticulate too much when you talk, look straight and relaxed, have a fresh haircut (men) or a light and modern hairstyle (women). Small details, such as how you carry your bag and gloves; how you get off a car, when are done the wrong way can totally ruin a first impression.
Diplomatic etiquette refers to the whole attitude and behavior, not just clothes. However, many of these rules are common sense and are considered general rules of good manners. You cannot participate at an event if you haven’t been invited, you can’t bring more guests with you than is specified on the invitation that you’re allowed. You must be punctual, although the notion and relevance of time are differently perceived around the world, due to the wide cultural differences. Generally an event is considered opened once the ‘honor guest’ arrived.
Although traditional and formal diplomatic uniforms are mostly gone from the modern 21st century picture, clothes have long been used as strategic tools, establishing supremacy and sending powerful coded messages. Fashion and etiquette will always play an important role and will sometimes help or support the diplomatic efforts, as easily as they can also undermine it, when used inappropriately.
Clothes and notorious brands have been used as cultural diplomacy tools for quite a while now. More or less, everybody thinks of France when we talk about Chanel or Dior, Armani means Italy, Burberry will always be associated with Great Britain as well as the USA and Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein are bound together.
In today’s world, where the visual is more important than ever and a good image says more than a thousand words, we see the increasing power of suggestion. The choices of adequate colors, brands, styles and their symbolism, nothing is random anymore, at the high level. All these details are extensively studied and advised by image experts and PR consultants, and used deftly in the diplomatic life. The image sells, promotes, conquers or creates alliances.
It is true that maybe the pandemic temporarily changed a bit part of all this. While online virtual meetings are today’s reality, it seems of less importance what color is your suit behind the screen, not to mention that most of the times, elegant shoes and socks are missing entirely, conveniently replaced by house shoes and comfy loafers. After all, we see people only from above their waist on screen, don’t we? … A lot of funny situations come to my mind now, about innocent ‘accidents’ related to clothing, which happened in the online environment of the last year. I am sure you know a few, too.
World is changing and is trying to adapt to realities unexpected until not too long time ago. But make no mistake, some things will always stay the same: real class and etiquette are timeless!
About the author:
She speaks Romanian, English, French, German and Italian, gives lectures on intercultural communication and is an active NGO volunteer.