A Complete Guide To What Every Single Dress Code Really Means

The best way to figure out what to wear is to dress according to what you expect the host to wear. Attending a high-end wedding? Then wear a gown. If, on the other hand, you’re going to a work function that calls for a black-tie dress code, it’s more appropriate to wear a little black dress with statement jewelry.

Attire Guide: Dress Codes from Casual to White Tie

Black tie, white tie; formal, semi-formal. Festive! Casual! Hitting the right note with attire can be confusing. Here are the details of how to dress appropriately for any occasion:

Casual

Casual dress code refers to clothing that is informal and comfortable, yet clean and professional. It’s best to go with nicer casual wear and avoid the baggier items you wear around the house.

Women

  • Sundress
  • Long or short skirt
  • Khakis or nice jeans
  • Shorts (depending on occasion and climate)
  • Plain T-shirt (no slogans), polo shirt, turtleneck
  • Casual button-down blouse

Men

  • Khakis or good jeans (clean, no holes)
  • Cargo or Bermuda shorts—depending on occasion and climate
  • Plain T-shirt (no slogans), polo shirt, turtleneck
  • Casual button-down shirt and/or sweater
  • Loafers, sneakers (with or without socks), sandals

Dressy Casual

A dressy casual dress code is a versatile balance between formal and casual. This is the ideal choice for networking (or socializing) after work, fundraisers, or dinner at a nice restaurant.

Women

  • Dress
  • Skirt and dressy top
  • Dressy pants outfit
  • Nice jeans and dressy top

Men

  • Seasonal sport coat or blazer, and slacks
  • Dress shirt, casual button-down shirt, open-collar or polo shirt
  • Optional tie

Semi-formal

Semi formal attire- cocktail dress and button down shirt

A semi-formal dress code is best described as being more formal than what you would wear to an office, but slightly less formal than what you would wear to a formal event. Do keep in mind that if the event is later than 6 in the evening, you’ll want to err on the side of formality.

Women

  • Short afternoon or cocktail dress
  • A “little black dress”
  • Long dressy skirt and top
  • Dressy separates

Men

  • Dark, business suit
  • Matching vest (optional)
  • Dress shirt
  • Tie
  • Leather dress shoes and dark dress socks

Business Formal*

Business Formal: Dark suit and tie

A business formal dress code is characterized by a suit jacket with matching pants or a skirt. The darker the suit, the more formal. There are seasonal variations as well as matching accessories to personalize your look, but they should not be a distraction in any way.

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Women

  • Suit
  • Business-style dress
  • Dress with a jacket
  • Stockings (optional in summer)
  • Heels, low or high

Men

  • Dark business suit
  • Matching vest (optional)
  • Dress shirt
  • Conservative tie
  • Leather dress shoes and dark dress socks

Business Casual*

Casual business attire is pretty ambiguous, but generally means slacks, khakis, or a skirt with a dress shirt, blouse or polo. Dresses and seasonal sport coats fall into this dress code as well.

Women

  • Skirt, khakis, or pants
  • Open-collar shirt, knit shirt or sweater (no spaghetti straps or décolleté)
  • Dress

Men

  • Seasonal sport coat or blazer with slacks or khakis
  • Dress shirt, casual button-down shirt, open-collar or polo shirt
  • Optional tie
  • Loafers or loafer-style shoes, and socks

*Always check and abide by your company’s dress code. Read more about business casual dress codes.

Black Tie

black tie

Black tie attire is slightly less formal than white tie, but it is more formal than business attire. It is the most common formal dress code for events such as weddings, proms, formal dinners, and theatre.

Women

  • Formal (floor length) evening gown
  • Dressy cocktail dress
  • Your dressiest “little black dress”

Men

  • Black tuxedo jacket and matching trousers
  • Formal (piqué or pleated front) white shirt
  • Shirt studs and cuff links
  • Black bow tie (silk, satin, or twill)
  • Black cummerbund to match tie, or a vest
  • Dressy braces to ensure a good fit (optional)
  • No gloves
  • Black patent shoes and black dress socks
  • In summer, in the tropics, or on a cruise: White dinner jacket, black tuxedo trousers plus other black tie wardrobe

Creative Black Tie

A creative black tie is best described as attire with a black-tie foundation with room for some creativity and flair. It maintains black tie formality but allows for the use of textures, colors, and accessories to personalize your look.

Women

  • Formal (floor length) evening gown
  • Dressy cocktail dress
  • Your dressiest “little black dress”
  • Fun or unique accessories

Men

  • Tuxedo combined with trendy or whimsical items, such as a black shirt or a matching colored or patterned bow tie and cummerbund

Black Tie Optional

A black-tie optional dress code gives guests a couple of formal options to choose from. Men are requested to wear a tuxedo, but can opt for a dark suit. Women can choose either a formal evening gown, a shorter cocktail dress, or dressy separates.

Women

  • Formal (floor length) evening gown
  • Dressy cocktail dress
  • A “little black dress”
  • Dressy separates

Men

  • Tuxedo (see “Black Tie” above)
  • Dark suit, white dress shirt, and conservative tie
  • Leather dress shoes and dark dress socks

Festive Attire (usually for the holidays)

A festive dress code is often the choice for holiday or New Year’s parties. It’s essentially cocktail party attire with a seasonal and festive holiday touch.

Women

  • Cocktail dress
  • Long dressy skirt and top
  • Dressy pants outfit or separates
  • A “little black dress”
  • Feature holiday colors

Men

  • Seasonal sport coat or blazer in color of choice, and slacks
  • Open-collar shirt, or dress shirt
  • Tie—festive or with a holiday theme

White Tie

Also known as “full evening dress”, white tie attire is considered the most formal of all dress codes. The white tie dress code indicates that guests are high-caliber, royal, or have high social standing.

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Women

  • Formal (floor length) evening gown
  • Long gloves (optional)

Men

  • Black dress coat (tailcoat), matching trousers with a single stripe of satin or braid in the US; two stripes in Europe or the UK
  • White piqué wing-collared shirt with stiff front
  • Braces, to ensure a good fit
  • Shirt studs and cuff links
  • White vest
  • White bow tie
  • White or gray gloves
  • Black patent shoes and black dress socks

Be sure to also check out our articles on wedding attire and golf attire.

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A Complete Guide To What Every Single Dress Code Really Means

STYLECASTER | Dress Codes

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OK, folks, let’s take a moment to talk about dress codes. They’re not the most exciting part of getting dressed for an event—Nothing sucks the fun out of getting ready to attend a wedding quicker than some obscure dress code printed on the invitation!—but understanding them is definitely a must. No matter how many gatherings I attend, it seems like I’m always second-guessing what the terms semi-formal, business casual and cocktail attire really mean—and what, exactly, to wear to each type of event.

Suits

Avene Retrinal

And while I usually subscribe to the rule that it’s always better to be overdressed than to be underdressed, it’s also super uncomfortable showing up somewhere in a gown when everyone else is wearing jeans and a tee. So, I did a little hard research on how to dress for each dress code. Frankly, whoever came up with the term dressy casual should totally be canceled. (Hello, aren’t those two opposing terms?) Alas, there are actually specific expectations behind some of the most confusing dress code suggestions—including formal dress codes and casual dress codes.

Because it’s already hard enough to shop for the perfect ensemble as it is when you do understand the attire suggestions, I went ahead and decoded some of the most common dress codes for you. (You’re welcome!) Whether your new job suggests that employees dress in business casual attire or you receive a wedding invitation that says “black tie optional” along the bottom, I’ve got you covered. I’ve even added in a few shopping picks, so if you’re already looking for the perfect ensemble, you’re set in that arena, too.

Picking out an outfit should be fun, not stressful—so go ahead and keep reading to learn how to dress for every dress code.

Our mission at STYLECASTER is to bring style to the people, and we only feature products we think you’ll love as much as we do. Please note that if you purchase something by clicking on a link within this story, we may receive a small commission of the sale.

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Dress Code: Black Tie

STYLECASTER | Dress Codes

This is crystal clear for those who prefer suiting over dresses, skirts and jumpsuits—wear a tuxedo. It’s a little more complicated when it comes to dresses, though. You can technically wear anything from a long dress to dressy separates to a formal cocktail dress.

The best way to figure out what to wear is to dress according to what you expect the host to wear. Attending a high-end wedding? Then wear a gown. If, on the other hand, you’re going to a work function that calls for a black-tie dress code, it’s more appropriate to wear a little black dress with statement jewelry.

Foolproof Outfit: A sleek gown or a classic black tuxedo

STYLECASTER | Dress Codes

Low Back Slip Mermaid Fishtail Gown

You can’t go wrong with a stunning black gown—and I particularly love a slinky fishtail number for a bit of flare. Dress it up with classic accessories like a pair of delicate strappy heels—and you need a red lip makeup look, of course!

Low Back Slip Mermaid Fishtail Gown

Dress Code: Black Tie Optional

STYLECASTER | Dress Codes

This is one of the murkier dress codes. Stereotypically, it meant that men were given the option of either wearing a tuxedo or a dark suit and a tie. Of course, anyone of any gender identity can opt for a suiting or tuxedo look. Those who prefer dresses can wear anything from a long dress to a cocktail number—so long as the style is relatively conservative. This often means that longer hemlines are preferred and long slits are not. Think of it like this: You aren’t expected to look as if you’re en route to the Oscars, but you should still make an effort with formal attire.

Foolproof Outfit: An ankle-grazing dress and statement jewelry, formal jumpsuit or a dark suit

STYLECASTER | Dress Codes

Sparkle Jumpsuit

For events that are black tie optional, wearing a more formal jumpsuit is a great option as a mix between suiting and a dress. One that’s covered in sparkles screams “formal affair.”

Sparkle Jumpsuit

Dress Code: Creative Black Tie

STYLECASTER | Dress Codes

Creative black tie is the dress code that allows you to have fun. Those who’d typically opt for a tuxedo, for instance, should feel free to wear a black shirt or a red bow tie—something other than the cookie-cutter penguin suit. Those who want to wear something other than a tux are similarly encouraged to take their look less seriously.

Still confused? Think of creative black tie as trendy black tie. Oftentimes, creative black tie is the expectation at theme parties with a dress code like “1920s Black Tie” or “Texas Black Tie” and in those cases, choose a dressy look that works with the theme. For instance, with a dress code that calls for Texas Black Tie, one would be dressed appropriately in a tuxedo, bolo tie and cowboy boots, or a gown and a cowboy hat.

Foolproof Outfit: A formal but-trendy gown for or a unique suiting look.