Societal norms typically dictate what type of clothing is appropriate for each occasion. However, sometimes those norms can get blurred or confused. In these cases, people institute a dress code.
A dress code is a set of rules and specific expectations on how to dress, depending on the occasion. It gives you a clue about the perception and the circumstances of the event you’re planning to attend.
Think about the many parts of your life. There is school, work, social events, and familial responsibilities. Do you wear the same thing for each area of your life? No, likely not.
These “rules” can be beneficial so that you don’t attract unwanted attention for not fitting in. They also help you dress with confidence, and to look good.
A dress code does not have to be intimidating. There isn’t much mystery to it; you simply need to know how to identify the occasion and translate the dress code.
White Tie Dress Code
A white tie event is the most formal event one could ever be invited to. Sometimes called “full dress,” white tie dress codes were not rare before World War II but are uncommon today.
These are extremely fancy events and are quite elegant. A white tie dress code is rigorous; it leaves little room, if any, for leeway.
Everything about the suit must be a certain way. The only room for some personalization, however, is in the choice of cufflinks, boutonniere, or pocket square.
The tailored black jacket will have silk facings with peak lapels. The jacket has a tailcoat, with the tails hitting at the back of the knee. It is double-breasted, with 4-6 buttons. The sleeves should fall slightly short so that they reveal some cuff.
These are also black, high waisted, and worn with suspenders. One or two satin stripes run along the outside seam of the leg.
The suit is worn with a plain white shirt with a wing collar, preferably detachable. The shirt has single cuffs and a tab in front to attach the shirt to the pants. It prevents billowing of the shirt, which would ruin the sleek and elegant look.
The white waistcoat has three or four buttons in front and is low-cut. The fit of the waistcoat is also precise. It must cover the trouser waistband but not go beyond the front hem of the tailcoat.
As the name “white tie dress code” indicates, the bow tie must be white. And do not get anything other than one that is self-tie. Anything else looks cheap and tacky.
As the most formal dress code, white-tie events demand the most formal of footwear. In particular, black and patent leather Oxfords with a small heel are ideal to complete the outfit.
You will often see personal touches in a white tie dress code through the accessories. A white scarf, white gloves, a white pocket square, or a black top hat are all acceptable.
White Tie Dress Code Occasions
- State dinner
- Royal ceremony
- Debutante ball
Black-Tie Dress Code
A black-tie event is almost as strict and formal as a white tie event and is still very elegant. The black-tie attire is only worn in the evening. Often called either a dinner suit or dinner jacket, this is the most common type of formal wear today.
A tuxedo jacket is single or double-breasted with either a peak lapel or shawl, never notched. The lapel is preferably silk. In almost all cases, the jacked is black, though occasionally you will find navy ones. In warm temperatures, a white jacket is acceptable.
The jacket can have vents at the side, if at all, though never in the back. The pockets are recessed without pocket flaps. The flaps are too casual.
Tuxedo trousers have no cuff. There is a single stripe of either silk or satin on the outseam. These pants are unique because they do not have belt loops; instead, they have adjustable side tabs.
Tuxedo shirts are also white with a wing collar. Unlike a dress shirt for a white tie dress code, a black-tie dress code utilizes a French cuff.
Waistcoat or Cummerbund
Either of these is acceptable with a tuxedo, but never both. The waistcoat can be single-breasted or double-breasted and works best with a peak lapel jacket.
A black pleated cummerbund is a good option, too, if you decide not to wear a waistcoat. It is worn around the waist with pleats facing up.
Bow ties are the standard clothing attire piece for black-tie events. It must be black, obviously, hence the name black-tie dress code. The bow-tie material should match the jacket facings, but nowadays it’s not that big of a thing.
The traditional code for black-tie events suggests that the bow-tie must be self-tied. For a more conventional look, opt-in for the standard style and match the texture with the suit jacket. For a trendier look, on the other hand, choose oversized or jumbo bow ties.
You’re not supposed to wear your everyday shoes to a black-tie event. It is one of the most formal events, after all. Black patent leather Oxford shoes will be the preferred choice. Calfskin pumps or laced Derby’s are suitable too.
A black-tie dress code offers fewer opportunities to accessorize than a white tie event. Scarves and top hats are not typical with black tie. However, suspenders and a white pocket square are welcome. A boutonniere may be appropriate, depending upon the occasion. One must never wear a watch when dressing formally.
Black-Tie Dress Code Occasions
- Evening weddings
- Award ceremony
- Private dinners
Black-Tie Optional Dress Code
No other dress code can be as maddening as this instruction. It can strike fear into men, making them wonder, “If not black tie, then what?”
It does not need to be a mystery. Quite simply, it means that the dress code can be slightly less formal than a full tuxedo. That’s all there is to it. Everything else remains the same. Consider it the less formal version of black-tie.
Not everybody owns or has access to a tuxedo. Making an event black-tie optional is a good way to be more inclusive to your guests. Besides, it shows flexibility.
If you are invited to a gathering with a black-tie optional dress code and have access to a full tuxedo, you should go ahead and wear it. However, if you do not, here are the guidelines.
It is acceptable not to wear a tuxedo, although it is still recommended. However, a polished, black suit with notch lapels is a suitable alternative.
Navy tuxedo or dark charcoal suits are also an acceptable replacement for the black in this less-formal black-tie setting.
A white shirt is the only way to go, even with more relaxed rules like these. French cuffs are preferred, though barrel cuffs are acceptable.
A tie is still a must with this dress code’s settings. If you want to use a skinnier black-tie than the classic one, go for it. However, it must be a solid print and black. Either a bow tie or necktie is fine.
Black leather or patent leather. Be sure to wear dark socks that match the pants. These events are not the place to branch out with color!
Black-Tie Creative Dress Code
Black-tie creative is another dress code that can be difficult to decipher. It does pose a particular challenge, but it can also be fun!
Creative black-tie dress codes are often utilized for events in the entertainment or other creative industries. They offer an opportunity to add color and flair to your look. Keep in mind, though, that it is still a formal tuxedo event.
You can feel welcome to add color with your waistcoat or cummerbund. Just don’t match your tie color to these pieces.
Some other things to be sure to stay away from are shocking colors on any article of clothing. Wrong shoes will also bring your outfit several notches down. And informal details on your suit, such as pocket flaps, back vents, etc., are also frowned upon.
If you see the words black-tie creative and break out into a cold sweat, relax. It is perfectly ok for you to wear a regular tuxedo or follow black-tie optional dress code rules.
Business Formal Dress Code
Places of employment often enforce a way of dressing to represent their business ethic, similar to having a uniform. Just keep in mind that business formal is a very conservative way of dressing for work.
It is a signal of respect in the workplace and shows that you respect your work. Typically, you will find people who work in law, government, finance adhering to a business formal dress code.
This dress code attire is a declaration that you are ready to get down to business. Consider it as a psychological effect of encouraging you to do your best, a reminder that you are no longer on personal time.
A solid white or light blue shirt, with or without subtle stripes, complete the business suit. French cuffs or barrel cuffs are both ok with this look.
Only pair this look with a tie that has muted colors. Patterns are fine, so long as they are not too bold. There are many possible tie color combinations with your suit and shirt that can enhance your look significantly.
Dark leather shoes are appropriate for business-formal dress codes. Just keep in mind that shoe color depends on the color of your suit, so choose wisely.
Business Formal Dress Code Occasions
- Business meetings
- Business-related events
- Work environments
- Business dinner
Semi-Formal Dress Code
Semi-formal events can fall into two categories: cocktail attire and daytime suit events.
This look falls in between office dress and formal dress. It offers more flexibility than either does on their own.
Since these events are slightly more relaxed than the other, more formal ones already mentioned, a tie is optional here. If the event is more formal, choose a dark suit.
Stay away from black, though, as that comes across as too formal. For a daytime event, wear a lighter suit, such as cream or tan.
Colors and patterns are fine for the shirt, but be sure it isn’t too wild. Extra bright colors or crazy patterns can end up looking garish. Therefore, you are not taking the event seriously.
A cocktail attire dress code is a semi-formal dress code for evening wear. Cocktail attire allows for plenty of personalities to shine through. It is a modern style mixed with a formal sensibility.
As with the daytime semi-formal attire, it is perfectly fine to wear no tie, even to leave a few buttons undone. Again, cocktail attire is totally open to interpretation, but few do’s and don’ts define the dress code.
A suit is not required, but I would highly advise it. Tailored trousers and a polished blazer are appropriate; stick with neutral colors to be safe. Be sure these pieces are of high quality.
You can veer from leather shoes. Want to try suede or velvet shoes? Feel free! The only rule here is to make sure they match your suit.
This dress code runs the risk of looking more casual, so accessorize wisely. A nice-looking pocket square or watch can complete this style.
Semi-Formal Dress Code Occasions
- Evening events
Business Casual Dress Code
A relaxed office environment will usually include a business casual dress code. It’s not a pass to look sloppy. In fact, employees must still look professional and follow specific rules.
Some businesses are not explicit in their expectations, or some events are considered business casual, without explaining what they mean. Here are some helpful guidelines.
Your business casual outfit should start with a nice jacket or a blazer. If you enjoy looking sharp, the best choice will be a single-breasted, navy notch lapel blazer.
Business casual offers various shirt choices: favorite colors, unique patterns, buttons versus no buttons are all in-game. You can add a sweater, such as a V-neck or a cardigan. Even a polo shirt can mix things up.
Do stay away from white shirts, because they equate with formal. The white background on a patterned shirt is good, though! French cuffs are also too fancy for business casual.
Dress slacks and casual trousers are both often seen in business casual dress code settings. Depending on how relaxed the office is, sometimes a very nice pair of jeans can also be allowed.
Loafers, brogues, or even chukka boots look nice with this dress code. Just please stay away from tennis shoes and sneakers.
There should be no tie. But you can surely wear one if you immensely want to.
Business Casual Dress Code Occasions
- Work environments (service industry, startups, etc.)
- Interview (if it fits the company’s culture)
- Conference (if it meets the company’s culture)
- Work-related events
Smart Casual Dress Code
Smart casual is not the typical office look. It is casual, but with some sophistication; relaxed, but not messy. One may see this as an upgraded casual that can be worn daily. There is no singular look, or even established rules, only guidelines.
The best about smart casual is that it allows the use of multiple colors in one outfit. Also, you can combine pieces of attire that belong to different extreme ends of the clothing spectrum.
Not a necessary item but adds a bit of flair to your style. Stick with a neutral color.
Although not a necessary piece of smart-casual attire, a collared button-up shirt always looks well put-together. But checked shirts like gingham or plaid sort of defines the look.
T-shirts will tilt your smart casual look in favor of a more casual appearance but can look very nice when done properly. A well-fitting solid tee can be paired with dress pants or a jacket for a unique, stylish image.
Try nice, dark jeans or chinos. Neutral pants colors like navy are perfect to finish the look. Go with chinos, and perhaps khakis in colder weather. For the summer, go for linen pants.
Leather shoes are nice for a more sophisticated outfit, while high-end sneakers can be fun as well.
Smart Casual Dress Code Occasions
- Startup Companies
- Tech Firms
- Casual Friday
- Family Event
- Afternoon Social Engagement
- Casual Office
Casual Dress Code
A very relaxed and comfortable setting will generally call for a casual dress code. It often includes jeans and a T-shirt or a polo shirt, so long as they are well-fitting. The shoes can be canvas or boots.
All the pieces will probably mix and match easily, creating endless outfit combinations.
Ultra Casual Dress Code
Ultra-casual is the look you might wear when you are hanging out with your friends. Frequent pieces in an ultra-casual attire include a T-shirt, a sweater or a hoodie, jeans, or khaki shorts.
Comfort is the primary goal of ultra-casual. The only rules are that there should be no holes in the clothing, and some workplaces may not allow graphics on shirts.
Hi, I’m Alex, and I’ve studied and specialized style in Rome. Through my writing, I want to help men dress well and learn the purpose and significance of suits and other formal attire. My final goal is to make men more confident in their wardrobe choice and life in general.