Saturday, April 16, 2011

Reader Question: What to Wear to Graduation Weekend? A Guest Response

Photograph taken by the author.

Hello Muffy, 

We live in Brazil and our oldest son is attending a school in Connecticut. He will be graduating in May. 

In connection with his graduation, my husband and I are traveling to the U.S. to participate of the formal dance / dinner on Saturday night, and the graduation ceremony on Sunday afternoon. Our son will hopefully be rowing at the New England Regatta on that same weekend. I wonder what would you advise us to wear for those events. 

We have been reading a lot but still some doubts remain. Should I wear a long dress on the Saturday night dinner? Should my husband wear a dark suit for the dinner, tuxedo or a jacket with slacks? How about on the boat race and on day of ceremony on Sunday? I would appreciate you help and if you need some more details just let me know. Best Regards.

I asked a friend to answer it for me, as she is the perfect person to do so:

Dear Reader,

Muffy has asked me to respond to your inquiry since we live in Litchfield County and have a son who is a recent graduate of a New England prep school and who now rows for an Ivy League University.

The weather in late May in this part of Connecticut tends to be hot and humid, but somewhat cooler in the evening. It is not unusual to have rain. You certainly will want to bring along a straw hat for the sun and heat of the day, an umbrella and a light outer layer of some sort for each outfit, such as a cardigan or pashmina. Worcester, Massachusetts, where the Easterns are held, has a climate identical to that of western Connecticut.

Check your invitation to the dinner dance. If formal wear is required, it will certainly say so, but I have never heard of a prep school imposing such rigid clothing codes on parents, students and faculty. More likely, it is cocktail party attire. The graduation will be held outside and perhaps under a tent, which means hats to protect you against the sun, reasonable shoes for the grass (i.e. less than 2” heels) and umbrellas in case of rain. Lake Quinsigamond, where the New England prep schools and universities meet for their annual spring regatta, is a less tony version of The Head of The Charles or Henley. It will be crowded but fun. Every school has a tent and picnic for athletes and families. You can anticipate the better dressed parents wearing smart country clothing but the ground underfoot will be uneven and wet, so wear comfortable but smart walking shoes. In fact, take your cues from the magazine, Country Life, and dress for the English countryside. New Englanders are all anglophiles and like to dress like English country ladies and gentlemen.

Your husband is safe all weekend in the typical New England men’s uniform of a classic Brooks Brother’s blue blazer, oxford broadcloth shirt, silk tie and tan or gray slacks. Men generally wear gray for more formal occasions, such as the dinner or graduation, and tan or khaki or more informal daytime use, such as the regatta. Please refer to the Brooks Brother’s website ( No suit is required at any time. English men’s shoes, particularly those made by the British cobbler, Peal’s (found at Brooks Brothers) are always tasteful and appropriate. He may want a comfortable pair of sneakers (trainers) or LL Bean’s boat shoes or moccasins ( for the regatta or walking around the campus. We love our penny loafers in New England and Bass Weejuns (oxblood being the preferred color) are tasteful and popular among the prep school set, both old and young.

Dressing appropriately as a woman in New England, unfortunately, is not as straightforward. We generally dress in very understated attire, wear minimal make-up (modestly colored lipstick and powder, perhaps adding a bit of mascara for the evening and short fingernails colored, if at all, in neutral pink or clear polish). Our jewelry also tends to be of a modest variety, such as pearl (a single or double strand for the neck is appropriate) or small diamond studs. Rings tend to be limited to engagement and wedding, with perhaps a family crest on the pinky of the opposite hand. A gold bangle or two and a gold charm bracelet or gold link bracelet is fine, but nothing more. As my grandmother used to say, “The only appropriate display of wealth is through charity.” Very high-heeled shoes are inappropriate in any of the settings you describe. You will want a nice pair of flats, some walking shoes, Wellingtons or boat shoes for the crew race (for Wellingtons, try Aigle or Hunter boots; for boat shoes try LL Bean and for flats you are safe with a typical ballerina style such as those made by Delman or French Sole). You will be comfortable in slacks or an A-line shirt with a cardigan and cotton blouse or T-shirt for the crew race and during the day. Stay away from any short and tight skirts or tops, particularly if they reveal your cleavage. Perfume should always “whisper rather than scream.” Prep school boys can be cruel to one another and a sexy mother will only draw inappropriate attention to herself and her son.

For examples of appropriate attire, try
 Our First Lady, Michele Obama, likes J. Crew and is always modestly and appropriately dressed. For my son’s graduation ceremony I wore a sleeveless A-line linen dress with coordinating cardigan and Ferragamo tan and black spectator shoes with a modest heel. For jewelry I wore a double strand of pearls, pearl studs and one gold bracelet. I was comfortable in conforming to the look of most of the mothers. The catalogues this spring have many excellent examples of this look, but one which comes to mind is the following sateen dress from the latest Pendleton Collection:

You can take more liberties with the dinner dance, but a formal dress would not be appropriate in my view. I would wear silk slacks, white or off-white, and a cheerful silk top. You can finish your look with a smart pair of flats or low heels and some fun jewelry. A recent addition to the category of fun jewelry is Meg Carter Designs (

We have a custom in the US that white (and summer clothing in general) is not worn before Memorial Weekend or after Labor Day Weekend. Since Memorial Day falls on the weekend of your son’s graduation, you can safely wear summer clothing all weekend long! You probably will also be treated to a traditional New England Memorial Day parade along the main street. Have fun, and remember it is always better to err on the side of anonymity.

Sincerely yours,
The Author, HHH


John said...

An excellent response. Very good advice.

Joy said...

Indeed great advice! Gosh I miss rowing so much.

lorrwill said...

Brilliant. Some great advice in this response for everyday as well as the events to pertained to.

Anonymous said...

I agree, an excellent response. The detail should be extremely helpful.

mary anne said...

Wonderful and common sense advice for so many occasions. Thank you.

john said...


Perfect advice. Nice to know that decorum still prevails in certain circles.


Anonymous said...

I completely disagree. Wear the fun, 'mamacita' dress more commonly associated with your country. The males will find it much more interesting. Why aspire to look like everyone else? That uniform is, um, a bit tired.

Anonymous said...

"Prep school boys can be cruel to one another and a sexy mother will only draw inappropriate attention to herself and her son."

Are you kidding? A sexy mother is just what is needed.

Pete said...

The sad fact is no really dresses for commencement exercises anymore, the faculty wear jeans and polo shirts under their robes, wanting to leave as soon as the whole event is over, the students aren’t much better.

Ferd said...

Very poor advice. If these SA folks want to really fit in and make the proper prep statement, here are the rules for men:

Around campus before the dinner. Him: very faded polo shirt, no insignia or brand design; shorts from Murray's with a few fish oil stains; three hundred year old Alden loafers with a very high polish; no socks.
Dinner: very faded polo shirt, no insignia or brand design; your father's Mark Fore and Strike pants from 1965 and a blue blazer; three hundred year old Alden loafers with a very high polish; no socks.
At the race: very faded polo shirt, no insignia or brand design; shorts from Murray's with a few fish oil stains; three hundred year old Alden loafers with a very high polish; no socks.
The appearance set by the foregoing attire can be enhanced by arriving very late to all functions in a 1993 County Rover with your son's hockey equipment in the back and 21 stickers from the Nantucket beach. Also, for God's sake don't appear to be actually interested in anything, don't touch your son at graduation and don't drink until 5:01 and thereafter drink seriously.

M said...

Utterly fascinating! Does HHH blog perchance?

Flat Rock Creek Notebook

Patsy said...

Dear Reader -

Rest assured that not all New Englanders are "anglophiles and like to dress like English country ladies and gentlemen." I'm sure you will look lovely! Good luck to your son in his regatta and congratulations to him on his graduation.

Anonymous said...

That response from Ferd is hysterical.

I imagine you will see all types at this graduation. Sophisticated outfits with muted colors from the NY Metro mommies, "understated attire" from the New England parents, and bright, pretty frocks from the southern (US) mamas. Obviously there are exceptions and my advice is to wear nice quality clothing (appropriate to the event, as outlined by HHH) that makes you feel good. Your son will be proud to have you there and you will be most comfortable if you feel like yourself.

Anonymous said...

PS- I remember the South Americans on the polo team at my southern preppy university always had the most gorgeous, sophisticated style. I'm sure you will look great!

Anonymous said...

I read your description of what to wear and wanted to scream OMG! Is life this complicated? I just get up and put on whatever I was wearing yesterday, unless of course it's time for the laundry. Shoes: I wear loafers until the leather cracks too much because I haven't polished them in six months. Jacket and slacks: same combination I started wearing when I was 13 years old and never changed, except for size of course, which now includes extra room in the mid-section. Hat: Just anything I can grab, usually there is a baseball cap in the trunk with some corporate logo from an investment conference I went to (a company I've never seen since, no doubt, but it's better than wearing a hat with a big P or H or Y, which is a definite no unless your at a football game-- don't want to have to raise your voice as to which team you want to win). Jewelry: For me, that includes my $125 watch, or it did until it broke two months ago. I haven't found one I like or am willing to spend money on since, so for the moment, I'm just using the clock on my cell phone. Socks: I only have one color, black, because I'm color blind and can't tell navy blue from black, and it's too much trouble to find two matching brown socks as I stumble around in the morning. As for underwear, my only concern is that if I'm in an auto accident and have to go to the hospital, I don't want the doctors to think I'm on Medicaid, so I wear something that will impress the doctors and nurses. Brooks Brothers is fine for that, and the logo screams "priority" to anyone doing triage. Then there is the question of whether to wear a tie. I like ties. The problem is that I have a hundred that I don't wear anymore, and when I buy something new, I gravitate to the same three colors and wear them until the stains no longer come out at the cleaners. I don't wear a tie if I'm wearing a baseball hat, no hat if I'm going to dinner, no dinner if my wife sees me without a tie -- so no hat after 5 pm.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ma'am,

I have spent too many May weekends along the shore of Lake Quinsig to count, but if you do go to the regatta let me say this: dress as comfortably as possible. Regattas are places where function trumps form. Watching races along Quinsig are a lot of fun, but they often involve a lot of standing and walking around and offer not many opportunities to sit and rest your legs. Make sure you're comfortable.

I'll also say this about watching a regatta: In late May, there are only two types of weather you're likely to experience- hot as all blazes or rains that would make Noah quiver. I would just advise to be prepared for both types of weather.

Enjoy your trip to the US and congrats to your son on his graduation.