As if figuring out what to wear on the average day weren’t hard enough. Now you’ve got to decipher what looks “casual chic” (?!?) for a big event. “Hosts are getting so creative with dress codes that guests are left scratching their heads,” says Derek Guillemette, the director of ready-to-wear for Rent the Runway, a company that rents designer evening wear. “Our personal stylists are bombarded with questions from customers about which styles will fit well and fit within a certain dress code.” And it’s not only women; men are stumped, too. To the rescue: a handy invitationese-to-English dictionary. So you and your other half can rise to any occasion.
Black Tie (a.k.a. Formal)
Translation: Old Hollywood glamour.
The safe bet: A tea- or floor-length gown is the way to go for upscale fetes, like formal weddings, charity galas, and awards ceremonies. Be a celebrity for the night and strut your stuff in a gorgeous satin, taffeta, or beaded number. Try a Hepburn-esque column or an A-line in red, navy, or emerald, which stands out from black and complements many skin tones, says Guillemette. As for accessories, “choose a dramatic necklace or dangling earrings, but never both,” he says. When in doubt, opt for time-honored classics, like diamond drops or a pearl necklace, over something too costumey. And an evening bag is a must; invest in one metallic clutch that can look dressed up or down for all your parties. Finally, be wary of trains and fishtails (because when you trip, no one will think it’s charming, à la Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars), loud prints (talking to you, cheetah!), and body-conscious styles (save them for A Night at the Roxbury). In the South, the rules of black tie are strictly adhered to and decorum prevails, says Tara Guérard, the owner of Soirée, in Charleston, South Carolina, a company that plans and designs events. Be especially mindful about not spilling out of necklines and slits.
What a guy should wear: A tuxedo with a black bow tie. “Make it a real tie, not a clip-on,” says Guillemette. Whether you rent or buy, select a trend-defying notch- or peak-lapel jacket with one or two buttons. The dress code tends to be more lax on the West Coast, where more men are getting away with dark suits.
Cocktail (a.k.a. Semiformal, After-Five)
Translation: An elegant party dress and a killer pair of heels.
The safe bet: “The LBD is your BFF for most weddings and engagement parties and many fund-raisers,” says Catherine Loose, the director of fashion for Style-Architects, a styling and event-planning service in Minneapolis. Turn to rich fabrics, such as lace, chiffon, and velvet, to elevate the typical black. But keep the hemline modest: two inches above the knee max. To test if your hemline is too short, stand with your hands at your sides; the dress shouldn’t be higher than your fingertips. You can branch out to other shades, too: Jewel tones and icy pastels can be just as refined in simple silhouettes. It’s also perfectly acceptable to splash out in dressy separates—say, brocade cigarette pants topped with a beaded shell. Whichever you choose, fancy footwear is mandatory. (Metallic or jeweled is a sure thing.) The daintier the heel, the more graceful your shoes will look on the dance floor (even if you have two left feet).
What a guy should wear: Go for dashing and timeless. (Think Don Draper before the hangover.) “Wear a dark suit that’s a well-fitted, toned-down version of a tux. That’s what separates it from what you would wear in the boardroom,” says Guillemette. “Stick to a white shirt, a dark tie, and black cap-toe oxfords.” Final touch: Give those brogues a respectable shine.
Festive (a.k.a. Holiday Attire, Creative Cocktail, Dress to Impress)
The safe bet: “Color, bold jewelry, and sparkly details show you’re ready to have a good time,” says Guillemette. You will often spot this dress code on invitations for holiday parties, but that’s no excuse to whip out the jingle-bell earrings. “Go all out with sophisticated bling and a vibrant dress,” recommends San Diego lifestyle and etiquette expert Elaine Swann, who says that a jacquard skirt with a silky blouse works, too. Add more glad tidings with statement accents: a bib necklace, red pumps, or a glittery clutch. Don’t let freezing temperatures put the kibosh on your fabulousness, says Loose: “In the Midwest, women often layer with a jeweled cardigan, opaque tights, and heeled booties.”
What a guy should wear: “Go for a playful vibe with a velvet blazer or a classic suit with a fun tie,” says Los Angeles–based stylist Eric Himel. But “fun” doesn’t have to mean emblazoned with candy canes; you can also look for holiday-colored stripes or a tartan. Prefer to lose the stuffy Windsor knot? Pair gray flannel trousers with a green cashmere sweater, or try colored corduroys with an open-collar shirt and a tweed sport jacket.