The way a person dresses is often the first thing to be noticed and subconsciously judged. Is that fair? Certainly not, but it is the way humans work, so instead of fighting one’s DNA it seems smarter to understand how the system of clothes and dress codes work to your advantage.
Dress Code Video
The video highlights the dress codes and uses more and different pictures than the article. Hence it is recommended to watch it and read the article to get a complete understanding of what to wear and when.
Today, dress codes are still very much in existence, but the meaning has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Just ask 10 people what a “formal” dress code requires, and you will likely get 10 answers, all of which are very different from even 30 years ago. Misunderstanding the dress code will inevitably lead to under- or overdressing, making yourself and others around you uncomfortable — or worse, it makes you look incompetent. In this particular guide, we’re going to discuss dress codes in detail in an effort to give you a better understanding of what each dress code term means and how to appropriately adopt it. No matter what the invitation requests, you will know what it means and hence be able to look your best.
Dress codes have been around for centuries, dating as far back as the Middles Ages, and they have been used to display class, socio-economic status or any other affiliation you can think of. Regardless of who you are or where you come from, dress codes are something most of us have had to contend with at some point in our lives. Whether it be an invitation to an event, a night out at the theater, or simply having to adhere to a dress code in our school days, there are times in each of our lives where we are asked or required to maintain a certain level of dress.
Dress codes may seem unnecessarily restrictive in this day and age when many people (us included!) enjoy expressing ourselves through clothes and style.
If you’re skeptical about the need for a dress code, there is appropriate dress for every occasion, whether we want to admit it or not. You wouldn’t wear a tuxedo to a construction site, and you certainly would never wear a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt to the opera. The two situations come across as pompous and disrespectful, respectively, and the goal of dressing appropriately is to respectfully enjoy the event or the company of your hosts without stealing the spotlight. Over or underdressing may cause you to forgo any future invitation that may otherwise come your way. However, that doesn’t mean you need to check your personal style at the door when there is a dress code.
So How Should I Dress?
This is a broad question that’s not easily answered. A smart casual outfit during November in Alaska is certainly different than one in Ecuador. And an invitation that asks for Urban Chic is not quite as clear as Black Tie. What do you wear if no indication is given on the invitation? Follow these steps to make a sound judgment about what to wear.
1. Inspect the Invitation
If the invitation is engraved, letter-pressed, or embossed on nice card stock, the host is probably spending time and money on the event. Acknowledge the efforts with a suit, dress shirt and neckwear — women should wear at least a cocktail dress. Store-bought cards are trickier to decipher because they vary from extravagant to basic, so search for other possible tip-offs (see below). When dealing with Evites (which are even sent for weddings these days), look for hints in the design and the wording. If a dress code is declared, it is typically found at the bottom or on the lower-right hand corner of the invitation or reception card.
2. Ask the Host
If the invitation doesn’t mention a dress code, ask the host. In case that is not an option, you’re going to have to play detective. Find out what the purpose of the event is, where it is, and whether you know other people who have attended the event before or who know the hosts and their style or preference.
3. Be Mindful of the Theme
If this is an annual event for a charity or an organization, check out what has been photographed and documented online to guesstimate your getup. Religious ceremonies, like Bar Mitzvahs and baptisms, deserve respect with proper attire.
4. Note the Time
As a general rule, parties after 5 p.m. mean more elegant looks, whereas daytime functions tend to be low-key.
5. Scope Out the Location
A party taking place at someone’s house will probably be more relaxed than one at a venue. But if it’s at a catering hall or a restaurant, browse the website to gauge its vibe. Outdoor shindigs tend to be less formal than indoor functions. Country-club protocol, however, leans toward jackets and not jeans.
Dress Codes Deciphered
In case your invitation states a dress code, things should be more straight-forward.
Although this term is often used to refer to all kinds of horrible outfits at tuxedo rental stores, formal wear refers to black tie, white tie, morning dress, or the stroller suit. Of course, they come with a variety of other terms which mean the same thing, but here is our breakdown for formal wear and what to dress in.
Evening Wear / Formal Evening Wear
As the name implies, evening wear should be worn in the evening, and for men, that means White Tie or more often Black Tie.
White Tie is the most formal version of evening wear and consists of the following attire:
- A black tailcoat with matching trousers that feature a single stripe of satin, Grosgrain or braid in the United States or two thin stripes in Europe.
- A white piqué or Marcella vest and a shirt with Marcella bib or starched shirt front, single starched cuffs, shirt studs and detachable wing-collar.
- Braces are used to ensure a good fit and white (not black or dark) formal shirt studs and cuff links are used to complete the look.
- A white Marcella bow tie is worn with white, unlined leather gloves and black patent leather opera pumps or cap-less oxfords with evening shoelaces and black over the calf silk dress socks.
- A white linen pocket square and a boutonniere polish off this ensemble. Carnations are quite popular with white tie outfits.
- Traditionally, it also includes a silk plush top hat, although that’s not required anymore
It is also known as Full Dress or Full Fig.
The long tails of the men’s tailcoat require long dresses for women as well. Hence, women should wear a floor length evening gown.
Black Bow Tie in Silk Satin Sized Butterfly Self Tie – Fort Belvedere
Dark Red Carnation Boutonniere Life Size Lapel Flower – Fort Belvedere
Classic White Irish Linen Pocket Square – Fort Belvedere
- A tuxedo jacket with silk-faced peak lapel (never notch lapel), jetted pockets (no flaps) or a shawl collar with matching tuxedo trousers, which feature a single galon stripe along the side.
- Single breasted tuxedo jackets should have only 1 button. Double breasted can have 2, 4 or 6 buttons.
- It is worn with a non-starched pleated or soft front white tuxedo shirt with black or dark studs and accompanying cufflinks.
- For the body, choose a black cummerbund that matches the bow tie or a deep cut evening vest in black silk or white Marcella.
- Braces to ensure a good fit.
- Black patent leather oxfords or opera pumps and black dress socks.
- A white linen pocket square and a boutonniere polish off this ensemble. Carnations are quite popular with black tie outfits.
- The black bow tie made of silk in a satin, barathea, moiré, faille or grosgrain weave, ideally matching to your lapel facings. An elegant black tie bow tie is never pre-tied. Watch the video to find out what black bow tie is best for you.
- To learn more about the Black Tie Dress code check out our Tuxedo & Black Tie Guide
For women, a full-length evening gown, or a dressy cocktail dress is appropriate.
Warm Weather Black Tie
If your event happens to fall in the heat of the summer, black tie can be a heavy ensemble to wear. Follow the above protocol, but opt for a white jacket and a cummerbund to reduce the layers and absorb less heat.
Black Tie Optional / Black Tie Invited
Often found on invitations today, Black Tie Optional means you are welcome to wear a tuxedo if you have one. If you don’t, a dark suit with a white dress shirt, a conservative tie and black leather dress shoes with dark over-the-calf dress socks and pocket square work as well.
The idea is to give guests the choice. People who want to wear one can do so, but others who don’t own one don’t have to invest in one.
Creative Black Tie
This is a relatively new black tie dress code, and it’s intended to loosen up an otherwise formulaic look. Even though we believe the original black tie is supremely elegant when done well, with “creative black tie” you can digress from the traditional in one or two elements of your ensemble. To maintain an elegant look, pair the standard black tuxedo with trendy or whimsical items such as a patterned bow tie, a softly colored shirt, playful cufflinks, or a bold boutonniere. If that doesn’t suit you, standard black tie is still acceptable.
Morning Dress / Morning Coat
Still popular in parts of Europe, morning dress is sadly underutilized in other parts of the world. If you are attending a formal event during the day, however, morning dress is appropriate and should be a standard part of your wardrobe. Events at which morning dress is appropriate include formal garden parties, riding events and derbies, weddings and other engagements. It consists of:
- A morning coat that is usually black or oxford gray, made of herringbone or solid wool with knee-length tails.
- It is worn with formal trousers featuring a cashmere striped or black and white check pattern.
- It is also possible to wear a morning suit consisting of trousers, tailcoat, and waistcoat made of the same light gray cloth.
- Braces are also worn to prevent the waistband from appearing beneath the waistcoat.
- Waistcoats are either dove gray or buff and single or double breasted.
- Traditionally, a stiff white detachable collar with plain turn-down cutaway and double cuffs is standard. For a vintage look you can wear a wing collar with an ascot and for contemporary wear, a regular white shirt with soft attached turndown collar and a silver-black tie are best.
- Regardless of what type of shirt is worn, it is always accompanied by cufflinks.
- For shoes, the black plain captoe Oxford without brogueing is traditional, but never patent leather, which is reserved exclusively for evening wear.
- Likewise, button boots or balmoral boots are also suited for Morning Wear.
- A black or grey silk top hat round out the outfit
Stroller Suit / Stresemann
On the formality scale, the Stresemann or stroller is the equivalent of the tuxedo for daywear. It is a great outfit for weddings, no matter if you are the groom or a guest. Learn more about the stroller suit here. It consists of:
- A black jacket
- Striped trousers
- A white shirt
- A dove gray or buff vest
- A tie
- Black shoes and over-the-calf black socks
Day Wear / Formal Daywear
This is the daytime equivalent of Evening Wear; a morning coat is the daytime equivalent of white tie and a stroller suit, or a Stresemann corresponds with black tie.
Semi-Formal / Half Dress
Traditionally, semi-formal meant either black tie or a stroller suit. Today, this refers to a dark suit with a matching vest, a white dress shirt, a conservative tie and black leather dress shoes with dark dress socks. For women, it’s an afternoon or cocktail dress, a “little black dress” or a long dressy skirt and top. If you are the host, you may want to avoid this dress code because of its ambiguity.
Festive / Holiday Attire
This dress code can be tricky because it can refer to elegant, dressier attire or silly knitted sweaters with reindeer. To avoid confusion, ask the host what exactly they mean, but you will likely be confronted with guests in both attires. To stay on the elegant side of this dress code, mirror cocktail attire with a holiday themed touch, such as a tie, bow tie or pocket square in holiday colors, or add an element of tartan or plaid. A collar pin or clip can also be a nice addition to the ensemble that makes it stand out. There is no need to wear a tie with Santas!
For women, it consists of a cocktail dress, a long dressy skirt, and top, a pant suit or a little black dress. Of course, it can mean wearing colored holiday attire.
Business Formal / Business Attire
Business formal, often called “boardroom attire” or “traditional business”, is the most formal type of business attire that’s worn during the day at the office.
At one point in time, that would mean morning coat or stroller but that’s no longer the case.
Today, it consists of a dark business suit with an optional matching vest, a white or blue dress shirt, a conservative tie and black leather dress shoes with dark over-the-calf dress socks.
For women, this consists of a business-style skirt or dress with a jacket, a black or dark pantsuit with optional stockings and heels.
Tenue de Ville
This term is sued in the Netherlands to describe a dark suit with a white shirt, a tie, and black shoes.
One of the most diverse dress codes, Business Casual, means no suit, but also no jeans. It’s a wide-ranging dress code that can frustrate many office workers with its ambiguity. The first step is to assess what business casual means in your office — is it a polo shirt and chinos, or a dress shirt and slacks? Once you’ve established the basic definition, aim to wear a slightly dressier version of what your colleagues wear. Dressing well is often equated with competence in the workplace, so it can’t hurt to look the part.
For those who prefer a definition, the perfect business casual outfit is a combination. It consists of a seasonal sports jacket or blazer with slacks, chinos or khaki pants. It includes an open-collar shirt with an optional casual knit tie or bow tie. It usually is paired with loafers or loafer style shoes, monk straps, derbies and over-the-calf socks because nobody wants to see your hairy legs at the office. Take your jacket off for meetings and client visits and leave it at your desk for casual interactions with colleagues. For more check out our details and stay tuned for our Business Casual attire guide.
Occasionally, you might encounter the term “Executive Casual”, and in this situation, you should select the more formal options within business casual in the best quality you can afford.
For women, it consists of a skirt, khakis or slacks, an open collar shirt, knit shirt or sweater, or a dress without spaghetti straps.
Two-Tone Knit Tie in Black and Magenta Pink Changeant Silk – Fort Belvedere
Blue Cornflower Boutonniere Buttonhole Flower Silk Fort Belvedere
Dressy Casual is open for interpretation, as are most dress codes. Typically, this consists of a seasonal fall or summer sportcoat or blazer and slacks, a dress shirt, casual button-down sports shirt, an open collar shirt or a polo shirt. It can include an optional tie.
For ladies, it consists of a dressy skirt and top, a dressy pantsuit or even nice jeans with a dressy top.
Smart Casual or Smart Chic
The art of being well dressed in a casual style, this is a widely interpreted dress code, but usually consists of chinos, khakis or well fitting jeans with an open collar dress shirt, a button-down shirt or a polo style shirt and a sport coat. Loafers are acceptable, as are leather dress shoes.
Cocktail attire is not just business attire; its more unusual in either texture, color, pattern or cut. Learn the Do’s & Don’ts of Cocktail Attire here.
Casual or Mainstream Casual
The most widely interpreted style of dress, casual clothing does not include street wear or athletic wear, but consists of chinos, khaki pants or nicely fitted jeans without holes. It can include Bermuda shorts depending on the occasion and climate and a plain t-shirt without any slogans, a polo shirt or a turtleneck sweater. Of course, it can also include the casual button-down shirt, or even a sweater such as a cardigan, v-neck or pull-over. For shoes, it can mean sneakers with or without socks, sandals, boat shoes, driving mocs, or men’s summer shoes.
Mainstream casual, even though it sounds like it should be very similar to standard casual attire, is often a synonym for business casual. Because of the confusing similarity, it is wise to check on the use of the term before venturing to the event; if checking isn’t an option, then stick to business casual.
Casual chic is a step down from Business Casual and a slight step up from Casual/Casual Mainstream. For men, it entails a shirt and trousers, but no jeans or a jacket.
Check out our guide of golf attire here.
Resort attire is the dress code most frequently used by — you guessed it — elegant resorts and country clubs. Resort attire is intended to be worn in tropical or warm weather locations, and this attire is often designated its own runway shows by the big designers. For elegant, warm weather attire, think slip-on shoes such as driving mocs, loafers, and boat shoes paired with linen pants, patterned or textured summer blazers or sport coats, seersucker, madras as well as linen shirts and polo shirts.
This dress code is most typically used for beach weddings. It’s quite similar to resort attire in that it emphasizes warm weather fabrics and colors. Select the more formal pieces of resort attire, such as linen suits, pants, shirts and light patterned sports jackets in khaki, white, and pastel tones. Even though this is at the beach, closed-toed shoes are recommended over sandals.
The original suit as we know it today was called the lounge suit because it was so casual it was only considered appropriate for the lounge in the early 1900’s. Today it simply indicates a matching jacket and pants.
To learn more about lounge suits, and the Golden Era of menswear take a look here.
Preppy Chic is bold, colorful and prep in the way described in our Preppy Style Guide.
It is far more embarrassing to be underdressed than it is to be over dressed. We hope you’ve enjoyed this primer on dress codes and urge you to stayed tuned for upcoming articles where we’ll discuss each type of attire in detail.
This primer was written by Sven Raphael Schneider & J.A. Shapira