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Etiquette Essentials: Dress Code

Racking your closet to find something appropriate? Interpret the invite with our Dress Code decoder.

Copy: Kat McEachern, Photography: Vogue

Nothing is better than arriving home to find a hand addressed envelope waiting, especially when it contains a party invitation inside. A quick RSVP YES, schedule a Google Calendar reminder, and you’re all set… except what to wear? Here’s how to figure it out:

White tie
This is code for Dress in Your Finest. White tie doesn’t mean a white tuxedo. Instead, it truly refers to the tie. The tailcoat, trousers, shoes, and socks remain black, but the tie and vest are white. For women, long dresses are required. Take advantage, there are not nearly enough opportunities to wear a gown. If an event is white tie, the invitations typically will note the dress code, as it is rare.

Black tie
For men, this means a traditional tuxedo with black tie, vest, pants, and jacket and a white button down shirt. When black tie optional is listed, feel free to skip the tuxedo for a formal black suit but stick to a simple dark tie to keep the streamlined feel of a tuxedo.

Women have a variety of options from a floor length frock to a cocktail dress but the accessories should be kept formal. A clutch, sparkly earrings and bracelet will help round out a simple dress. Heels are typically worn. If wearing flats, be sure they are extremely formal and in excellent shape. Especially when wearing a cocktail length dress, rely on luxurious materials like silk to make your attire feel formal.

Like a white tie event, black tie is typically notated. An exception is formal weddings, as weddings do not typically note attire on the invitation though they frequently do mention it on wedding websites. A wedding that starts at 6pm or later is safe to default to black tie.

Cocktail Attire
Cocktail attire can also be referred to as semi-formal. It often allows more room for creative expression such as dressy separates for women and more playful tie choices for men. This is especially true for non-work events where cocktail attire can also imply business formal. If the invitation specifies “festive” semi-formal then add on more fun or seasonal accessories.

Business Formal
Often business attire is set by your company or field, but there are times you may find business formal on an event description and be unsure of exactly what to wear. Suits are the way to go here, always for men and a safe bet for ladies. Accessories are more conservative.

Business Casual
This is where the suits get left behind. For men, slacks and a blazer with either a button down or dress shirt. Ties are optional. Women can opt for slacks or skirt and a blouse or a more casual dress. Accessories should still be kept to the more modest side, such as lower heels and simple jewelry. Again, judge based on your industry. Business casual for lawyers is rather different than for fashion bloggers where business casual is ripped boyfriend jeans and an oversized sweater paired with 4-inch heels and a statement necklace. (Rhinestones equal business, right?)

Anything goes! Well, we can think of plenty of items we’d rather not have guests show up in at our casual dinner parties- ahem, Vibrams or Crocs- but we trust you know where to draw the line. For any party, we default to “dressy casual” or “festive causal” to set the party mood. Casual events are typically the least likely to note on the invitation but any invitation received by phone or evite without a mention of dress is a good bet to be casual. If unsure, a quick call or email to the host can clarify without need to worry.

We’d love to know, when do you get stumped by the dress code? Etiquette Essentials is here to help.

*Read more Etiquette Essentials stories over here!

  • Kelsey Harp

    Great guide and timing! Friends and I were discussing etiquette this weekend and the big question amongst us ladies: Is wearing red to a wedding still considered a faux pas?

    • Katherine McEachern

      Black, white and red all used to be no-goes for weddings but now only really white is banned. Stay away from white, cream or pale pinks that may look white in photographs. Red is fine, just match the shade to the tone of the wedding. Burgundy will be great for fall and winter weddings, a brighter red for an outdoor summer event. Black is a bit somber for the daytime but at an evening, formal wedding it is fine to wear black. Excellent question, Kelsey!

      • Kelsey Harp

        Thanks, Katherine!

  • Lynn Chen

    This came at the perfect time – we have our first black tie wedding to attend this weekend (ever, in almost 15 years of going to weddings) and I was a bit clueless.

    • Katherine McEachern

      Glad we could be helpful!

  • Eneri

    What is smart casual, especially for women? I get invited to Embassy events, and that was the stated dress code. However, the spectrum was varied, so I’m not really sure if anyone knows what it means.

    • Katherine McEachern

      Smart casual is business casual. It’s a bit more dressed up than casual (instead of just relaxed you are “dressing smart”) but not completely business attire.

  • tara

    I’ve always wanted to get invited a black or white tie event. Love your explanations!

    PS: Forgive me, but shouldn’t that be wracking in the deck? Or is it a play on words…?

    • Katherine McEachern

      Great question- it is a bit of a play on words :)

  • lexie chung

    What about beach formal? Will it have to be a gown? As if in long dress or so?

    • Katherine McEachern

      Formal dress doesn’t have to be long anymore. Length often adds a bit of formality, but if you’d like to wear a shorter dress pick one made of a more formal material, with embellishments, and select dressy accessories. If you’ll be walking on sand, feel free to wear flat or pick wedges over heels.

  • C.E.

    I recently began an event design job in an office of all men (mostly technicians) who are often sent out to work on site and have a company uniform of a black polo and black work pants. The only direction I was given in terms of dress code was “professional but comfortable” accompanied by a *shrug*, and there are no women in the office for me to take cues from. The owner of the company, whom I often accompany to meetings and such, wears the company uniform or jeans.

    To make things more difficult, my job description is quite varied — some days I’m meeting with clients at formal venues, others I’m building decor in the shop, and still others I’m alternating between working at a desk and running errands around town. I never know quite what to expect, so it’s hard to judge what is appropriate.

    Any advice would be appreciated! :)

  • Cynthia Sarmento

    Really good guide!
    I always have trouble deciding myself whether to use this or that and always need to google for an answer! heheh
    I’ll keep this post as a favorite for the next time!


    • Katherine McEachern

      Thanks so much!

  • Ellen Riley

    What about wedding dress codes? I’ve heard you’re not supposed to wear white, black or red. Is this true? Or better yet, what should we wear? Thanks!