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Design & Style

How to Dress for Any Occasion: A Guide to 7 Dress Codes

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 21, 2020 • 3 min read

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Events sometimes list a certain dress code on the invite, indicating to attendees how they should dress for the party. Learn how to decode seven of the most popular kinds of dress codes, from casual to white tie.



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A Guide to 7 Different Dress Codes

When attending an event, it's essential to understand the dress code—and know when to bend the rules.

  1. White tie: White tie is a formal dress code typically reserved for galas and state dinners. For men, swap your black tie dinner jacket for a single-breasted tailcoat and a wing-collar white shirt with mother of pearl shirt studs. You'll also need a white bowtie and a white vest. If you want to go ultra-traditional, you can lace up your black patent leather shoes with black ribbon. For women, it's time to break out the floor-length ball gown and long gloves.
  2. Black tie: Black tie is a formal dress code common for formal evening events. Traditional black tie for men entails a single- or double-breasted dinner jacket and matching trousers worn with a pleated white dress shirt with a turndown-collar. It's generally fine to veer slightly from the black tuxedo: More creative black tie options include midnight blue tuxedos and white dinner jackets. Finish the look with cufflinks, a black bow tie, a white pocket square, black patent leather shoes, and black dress socks. Cummerbunds (waist coverings) and vests are optional—just don't wear them together. The black tie dress code for women is a little more flexible: You'll want a knee-length to floor-length evening dress. Accessorize with heels or flat dress shoes, a clutch, and minimal jewelry.
  3. Black tie optional: When an invitation says "black tie optional," the expectation is that you'll either wear black-tie attire or something similar but a little more relaxed—like a dark suit or elegant cocktail dress.
  4. Cocktail attire: Cocktail attire, also known as semi-formal attire, is the style of clothing you'll wear to evening events like fundraisers and weddings. Cocktail dress code involves casual suits and dress shirts for men. Stick to wool suits in dark colors in winter; for summertime and outdoor cocktail events, you can wear a light-colored suit in a breathable material like seersucker or linen. Oxfords, loafers, and brogues are acceptable footwear choices. A cocktail dress is fancier than a sundress but more casual than an evening gown. When in doubt, go for the classic little black dress. Not wearing a dress? Go for a dark suit or dressy separates.
  5. Business casual: Business casual doesn’t necessarily mean casual—what it actually means is that you don’t have to wear a suit and tie. Business casual workwear usually includes a collared shirt (button-up or polo shirt) or sweater on top, and dress pants, khakis, chinos, or a pencil skirt on the bottom. You may also wish to add a blazer or sport coat, but you don’t necessarily need a custom-tailored suit jacket. Shoes should be closed-toe and professional, whether you choose boots, heels, flats, loafers, mules, or oxfords.
  6. Dressy casual: Dressy casual, also known as “smart casual,” is an upgraded version of casualwear, generally more suited to job interviews, client meetings, and casual nighttime events. For a dressy casual dress code, break out trendier pieces, like jumpsuits, blazers, and high-end footwear. Instead of T-shirts, opt for button-downs and blouses.
  7. Casual: Casual attire is the least restrictive dress code, but this doesn’t mean you should dress quite as casually as you would at home. Jeans and T-shirts in solid colors are okay, but stay away from graphic tees, flip-flops, and anything ripped or stained. Depending on the season, you may want to wear full-coverage shorts or a casual sundress. Casual dress codes are typical for low-key and outdoor events.

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