Just what do you mean, ‘dress festively’?

Story highlights

During the holidays, "festive attire" is subjective: Find out what the party host means

Festive is fun, but you can make it appropriate for many party situations by paring down

"Ugly" sweaters from the 1980s and '90s have made a (mostly) ironic, festive comeback

CNN  — 

There, glaring in red and green at the bottom of the holiday party Evite, lurks the season’s most vague directive: “Dress festively.”

Even Lizzie Post, the co-author “Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition” and great-great-granddaughter of American manners doyenne Emily Post, doesn’t know what that means.

“Festive” clothing can be everything from blinking jewelry and “ugly” Christmas sweaters to a formal gown in a traditional holiday hue. Although Post offers an attire guide for nearly every party situation – even specifically addressing “festive” – she readily admits it’s a subjective idea.

“When it first started appearing on invitations we were like, ‘Oh, crud. That is so open to interpretation. What will people end up wearing?” she said.

The simple answer? Call the party hosts and ask what they envisioned, she said. But if you’re on your own to divine the right kind of attire, the key is to understand the kind of party you’re attending, Post said.

If the party is with close friends and family, go for it. “Bring out the kitschy candy cane earrings,” Post said. Every family seems to have a fun person who loves to go bold for the holidays.

If it’s a work-related invitation or anything formal, wearing anything shaped like a present, a candy cane or Santa Claus could be a huge manners mistake. “You need to either leave it at home or it needs to be so tasteful that it would be considered cute and sweet without being childish or kitschy,” she said.

If you’re going to your boyfriend’s parents’ house, where you will meet them for the first time, think twice about the impression you’d make by being decked out like Santa’s helper from the mall.