Friday, July 1, 2011

We’d Like to Have You for Dinner: Invitation Etiquette

The drawing above is the front cover of an invitation I used to send out 20 years ago. You open it up and it says “We’d like to have you to dinner.” Underneath there are lines to write the name of the host, time, date, place, and r.s.v.p. phone number. These were packaged notecard invitations that I bought from a card shop. I hadn’t been married that long when I found these notecards in the store. I was enjoying planning dinner parties and I thought these invitations were funny, so I purchased several packages of them. I still have a couple of them left, albeit they are a bit yellowed by now.

Now I’m guessing Emily Post probably wouldn’t have sent out one of these invitations. I’ve got her etiquette book my shelf and this kind of humor doesn’t exactly seem like her style. But it was mine, at least at one time. And it does serve as a nice segue into an important topic: invitation etiquette.

Obviously, if you’re going to have people over, you need to do some inviting. But how? Should you send out a formal or an informal invitation? Are by-mail invitations always preferred or is it okay to just send one electronically? What type of information do you need to include in your invitations? When do your invitations need to go out? These are all questions I’m going to address here.


Back in the early-20th century when Emily Post published her etiquette book, it was a different world. Victorian culture was still a huge influence in society, not just in England but here in the U.S. too. When people entertained, it was done much more formally. They hosted balls, cotillions and formal dinners at elaborately-set dining room tables. Attendees dressed to the hilt, and friends addressed each other by “Mr.” and “Mrs.” The invitations to these events were often a work of art, written in calligraphy on personalized vellum stationery.

Our world today is certainly much less formal. It seems everyone is busy and strapped for time. When we get together with friends, it’s usually for a casual get-together of some kind—a BBQ, buffet, potluck, birthday party, etc. About the only formal events most people get invited to anymore are occasional corporate events and weddings, and sometimes black tie dinners or dances. Even if we’re invited to a ‘sit-down” dinner or a cocktail party, most people come in “casual” or “dressy casual” attire, rather than formal or semi formal. My husband and I went to a Broadway show a couple months ago and we were surprised how casually dressed most people were who attended. We saw a lot of people wearing jeans, and not a lot of jackets on the men or women in long dresses. “Formal” thinking is becoming a thing of the past.

With most of today’s social occasions being casual or informal, what’s necessary in terms of invitations follows suit. For the kinds of events that most people plan nowadays, a formal invitation isn’t necessary. If you’re planning an informal gathering, it only makes sense to send out an informal invitation. Of course, that could run the gamut from just calling up a friend on the phone or e-mailing someone and saying, “Want to come to our house for a cookout next Friday?” to sending out Evites, mailing store-bought notecard invitations, or making your own homemade invitations.

The majority of invitations I extend these days are sent as email messages or via an electronic invitation site like,,,, or It’s fast and convenient (you don’t have to manually fill out invitations and address envelopes), it costs nothing to send an invitation on these sites (which can save you some $$$), it’s quick (you don’t have to worry about invitations being lost in the mail!), and it’s easy for guests to RSVP (they just respond online). Actually, I can’t remember the last time I delivered invitations the old “snail mail” route.

Still, you may want to opt for mailed invitations, especially if you’re inviting people who don’t use computers very often, or if you just want to surprise your guests with a handwritten card in the mail. Most card shops, party retailers and discount stores carry a nice selection of preprinted notecard-style invitations. All you have to do is fill in the details of your party.

You may also want to get creative and make your own invitations, especially if you’re planning a theme party. For instance, when we’ve hosted western parties, our invitations came in the form of “Wanted” posters. For a Caribbean-themed party, our invitations resembled cruise ship boarding passes, with the party theme (Jamaican), location, date, etc., incorporated into the boarding pass. Some friends of ours hosted a 1920s themed murder mystery party, and sent out invitations that consisted of a newspaper front page from that time. That newspaper not only stated the “when” and “where” for the party, but also provided background information for the setting of the murder mystery. Another friend mailed out uninflated beach balls with the invitations to her child’s birthday pool party, which would feature a beach ball contest. There’s no limit to what you can do! You just need to think of some kind of object or motif related to your party theme that you could incorporate into your invitations. Remember, if “fun” is the goal for your gathering, a very creative, homemade invitation can really set the tone for your event.

On the other hand, if you are planning a truly formal event like a wedding reception, a corporate gala for a hundred business executives, or a black tie cocktail party before going to the opera, you’re going to want to go with a formal, mailed invitation. These would typically be engraved or printed in black ink, on white or cream cardstock. You could either have a printing house design and print the invitations for you, or buy invitation paper from an office supply house and design and print your own. The latter, obviously, will cost you a lot less money.


Whether you are going with a formal or informal invitation, you need to include the same basic information:

*The type of event (dinner, cocktail party, game night, BBQ, anniversary celebration, going away party, graduation open house, retirement party, shower, etc.)
*Hosts’ names (if there are multiple hosts, list all of them, rather than just the homeowners where the event is to take place)
* Date
* Time
* Location (Definitely include street address and city. For out-of-town guests and those who are using Google Maps or Mapquest to obtain directions, it’s also helpful to include the state and zipcode. If the location is somewhere other than your home, such as a banquet hall or restaurant, include the name of the establishment.)
* Guest of honor, if there is one (the bride-to-be, birthday person, anniversary couple, family that’s moving away, high school graduate, etc.)
*Attire—black or white tie, business formal, cocktail attire, etc. (This is not always stated on informal invitations, but always should be on formal invitations. One informal type of informal invitation that would state the attire is if guests are to come in costume—such as for a 50s sock-hop, luau, murder mystery party, etc.)
* If you’d like guests to bring something—a dish to pass, their own drinks (BYOB), a specialty item (for instance, their own swim suits and beach towel if it’s a pool party; homemade baked goods if there’s going to be a dessert-making contest, etc.), or a contribution of some kind (white elephant gift, a donation if it’s a charity function, etc.)—this needs to be stated. Note: normally guests are only asked to bring something if it’s an informal event.
*Optional: Map and directions (For formal events, this information would be printed on enclosures on placed inside the envelope. For casual get-togethers, this information could be listed on the invitation itself if there’s space to do so.)
*Optional: The time for key events during the evening (i.e., cocktails at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m., awards ceremony at 10 p.m.)
*RSVP information (include hosts’ contact information and deadline for responding)

The wording on a formal invitation, not surprisingly, is very formal. The standard format goes like this:

Winston and Eleanor Ashworth
request the pleasure of your company
for dinner and dancing
on Saturday, the twelfth of February
at seven o’clock
The Barn of Barrington
1415 S. Barrington Road
Barrington, Illinois
Black tie

For formal mailed invitations, enclose a reply card with a stamped, preaddressed envelope or postcard.

In contrast, the wording on an informal invitation is much less formal, and there isn’t a standard format. It can be written very straightforwardly, like this:

You are cordially invited for dinner
On Friday, October 12 at 6 p.m.
At the home of Ron and Nancy Myers
1231 Midland Road, Saginaw
RSVP: 517-792-2121, or

Or, the wording can be much more conversational:

We are planning a surprise anniversary party for Mike and Jenna Tucker at our home, on Saturday evening, June 3, at 6 p.m. Please join us for dinner, cocktails, and a special slideshow celebrating Mike and Jenna’s 25 years together. We would like to present them with a group gift, so if would like to contribute to that or have any ideas for what to buy them, please let us know.
Tom and Becky
RSVP at 965-987-1212 or

Note that the ending time for parties aren’t usually listed on invitations. The main exceptions are: children’s parties (so parents know when to pick up their children) and parties that precede a bigger event (i.e., cocktails before going to a theatrical performance).


Lastly, there’s the question of when you need to send out your invitations. This too depends on whether you are hosting a formal or informal occasion.

In general, the more formal the event, the more advance notice you should give to your guests. Most of the etiquette experts like Emily Post recommend you send out your formal invitations anywhere from four weeks to three months before the event. A formal dinner would be at the lower end of the range, whereas a wedding reception would be at the higher end. This is to allow your guests time to make all the arrangements that are usually necessary to attend these kind of events, like babysitting, airfare to travel there, hotel reservations and tuxedo rentals. (I’ve often wondered if this was also to allow female guests time to go on diets so they can fit in their party dresses! Okay, that’s my attempt at levity!)

For most casual get-togethers, invitations are usually sent somewhere between 1 and 6 weeks in advance. This gives people time to check their calendars and rearrange their schedules if necessary, but it’s not so far in advance that they might forget about the occasion later on. Usually there are far fewer arrangements that need to be taken care of to attend an informal event, so guests don’t need nearly as much advance notice as they do with formal events. Exactly how much time you should allow varies. If you’re inviting people to a pasta dinner on a weeknight, they may only need a week or two’s notice. However, if you’re planning a murder mystery or costume party, you should give your guests at least a month’s notice, just so they can have time to find costumes (which they may need to order).

This is not to say you should never invite people last-minute. Some of my most enjoyable get-togethers are often impromptu. However, these are usually VERY casual events. If it all possible, it’s nice to do some advance planning.

This is also not to say that you should never send out invitations to informal get-togethers more than 6 weeks in advance. In some cases, you might need to. A lot depends on how busy your social circle is. I, for one, socialize a lot with our local church, which is a very close—but busy—group. I often send out invitations to parties 6 to 8 weeks in advance, just because I know that if I wait until a month before we want to have people over, it may be too late. Everyone’s weekends are already booked up.

Of course, when I invite people this far in advance, I always send out reminders, 1-2 weeks before the event. That’s always a good idea. If you’re using an electronic invitation site like Evite, this is very easy to do. You just click the option to send out a message to everyone on the guest list, and within minutes you can have electronic reminder going out to all your guests.

If you don’t like sending out invitations way in advance—perhaps because you don’t have all the details planned out yet—an alternative is to send out a “Save the Date” notice. You might do this several months or more in advance. This can be done via a mailed postcard or notecard, email message, or through sites like Evite (which offer a “Save the Date” option with their invitations). Basically what you’re doing is letting your guests know you’re going to be planning on event on a particular date and you want them to mark their calendars now. You don’t have all your details figured out yet, but in this notice, you let your guests know you’ll be informing them of all the specifics closer to the date of the party (maybe just a week or two beforehand) and sending out the actual invitation then.

This summer, I sent out some “Save the Date” emails in early May, asking friends to set aside a date in August for a special pool party. I know how busy summer vacations can be, and I wanted to notify friends of the date, before their calendars were filled. It also helped me nail down a date for the party, before I started making too many plans.

Okay, I think I’ve covered the main points regarding invitation etiquette. I can’t think of anything more to add. I’m actually talked out! I hope what I’ve written has been helpful.


No comments:

Post a Comment