“Festive attire.” Seriously, does that mean anything? For those who are confused about appropriate party wear—and who isn’t?—pro style sleuths crack today’s often confusing dress code.

By Megan Kaplan
December 05, 2018
Serge Bloch

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.

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If the Dress Code Is 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.

If the Dress Code Is 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).

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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.

If the Dress Code Is Festive (a.k.a. Holiday Attire, Creative Cocktail, Dress to Impress)

Translation: Razzle-dazzle.

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.

If the Dress Code Is Dressy Resort (a.k.a. Island Chic, Garden Party, Outdoor Wedding)

Translation: Easy, breezy, beautiful.

The safe bet: Balance fashion and function. “Slip on a comfortable maxi, a flowy sundress, or a cute shift with a splash of bright jewelry,” says Swann. If you’re celebrating in a tropical locale, break out an exotic print, and maybe tuck a flower in your hair, suggests Mindy Lockard, an etiquette consultant in Portland, Oregon. Whether you’re headed to a beach wedding, a rustic rehearsal dinner, or an alfresco luncheon, ditch the heels, which will sink into sand or grass. Gold wedges, beaded sandals, or embellished ballet flats are posh enough for the occasion. Instead of black, pick white or a shade that plays up the natural surroundings—blue, coral, yellow.

What a guy should wear: Leave the serious jacket and tie at home. Instead, “choose an ivory or tan linen suit or a pale shirt with white pants, loafers, and no socks,” says Himel. If the setting is a country club, switch to classic preppy: khakis and a pastel oxford shirt with a sport jacket.

If the Dress Code Is Business Attire (a.k.a. Office Appropriate, Dress Your Best)

Translation: What you would wear to an important interview.

The safe bet: Gravitate toward Wall Street rather than dot-com when it comes to work dinners, company parties, and networking events. That means a simple, neutral suit or a sheath dress. “Look to Jackie O. for inspiration,” says Lockard. This isn’t the time to experiment with trendy cuts or the hot color of the season, though you may want to consider adding texture with a metallic tweed or a variegated bouclé jacket or skirt. Even if your office is casual, spiff up your usual look with a skirt rather than pants, a blouse in place of a tee, and pumps over flats. In this case, it’s okay to carry your everyday bag. For a work holiday party, you can loosen up a bit and introduce a single touch of sparkle or color. But keep your hemline around the knee and your neckline conservative.

What a guy should wear: “A gray or navy suit is best. Black is too funereal or maître d’–ish,” says Himel. A dark chalk-stripe or windowpane pattern works, too. Add a natty tie, a white or pale blue dress shirt, and polished brown shoes.

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If the Dress Code Is Casual Chic (a.k.a. Dressy Casual, Smart Casual, Denim and Diamonds)

Translation: A dress-up/dress-down hybrid.

The safe bet: Pair a weekend staple with something glamorous—for instance, jeans with a bow blouse and heeled booties or ornate flats. To look pulled-together in jeans, stick to a deep indigo rinse, a sophisticated pattern, or a saturated shade, like cobalt, oxblood, or emerald. Sharpen up further with a blazer and Golden Globes–worthy earrings. The goal is polished but not uptight, so a floral shift or a pair of tailored pants with a bright cardigan also make the cut, particularly for a daytime function, like a bridal shower. When it’s a girls’ night out or a dinner party, you can be more adventurous in a trendy jumpsuit or boldly printed pants. What to do about dress codes that mystifyingly tag “chic” to other words? (As in “California chic,” “city chic,” “jet-set chic.”) Lockard says to go the extra mile if you’re at a loss: “Being overdressed shows you put in an effort, whereas being underdressed can come across as disrespectful.”

What a guy should wear: “Aim for date night—no suits or ties,” says Loose. Sport a tailored oxford shirt with flat-front chinos or sleek wool pants. But if the event is more pub than lounge, switch to dark denim.

If the Dress Code Is Come as You Are (a.k.a. Casual)

Translation: No, not really. You’ll need to step it up from yoga pants.

The safe bet: Your host may actually be saying, “Hey, we’re easygoing. Just come on by and don’t stress about it.” Still, it’s worth putting on lip gloss and mascara so you don’t look as if you just rolled out of bed, says Loose. Something you would put on for lunch with friends—say, nice jeans with a striped top and ballet flats—is ideal. If it’s a backyard barbecue, an open house with the neighbors, or a get-together with kids, nice jeans and Converse sneakers or other cute kicks pass muster. It’s also smart to take a cue from the host. If she is usually put-together on an average day, follow her lead and slip on a simple jersey dress with skimmers or boots. What not to wear, no matter what: gym clothes, like graphic tees, sweats, and beat-up trainers.

What a guy should wear: Everyday clothes that are clean, in good condition, and unwrinkled. (Yep, the bar is pretty low.) Try a Henley or a button-down with jeans or, in the summer, shorts. Whether boots, mocs, or sneakers, the footwear should be well-kept and stylish to elevate the whole look.

So What Are the Options for “Black Tie Optional”?

When an invitation says a style of dress is “optional” or “preferred,” the host is stating her preference with some wiggle room. “It means ‘This is what I’d like you to wear. So if you have it, wear it—or the next best thing,’ ” says etiquette consultant Mindy Lockard. It doesn’t mean “Go out and buy a new outfit.” Expect a lot of hemlines that hit around the knee at a black tie–optional affair, says event planner Tara Guérard. But if you do go short, the dress should be awards-show fancy. As for men, a dark, dressy suit with a black tie is acceptable in place of a tux.

Get a Clue

If the invitation offers no heads-up on the attire, the surest way to find out the dress code is to ask the host what she is wearing. But if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, you’re going to have to play detective.

Compare Notes
Puzzle it out with friends who are also going to the party and decide on a dress code that you can all agree on.

Inspect the Invitation
If the invitation is engraved, letterpressed, or embossed on nice card stock, the host is probably spending time and money on the event. Acknowledge her efforts with a gown or a cocktail dress. Store-bought cards are trickier to decipher because they vary from extravagant to basic, so search for other possible tip-offs (see below). When dealing with e-vites (which are sent even for weddings these days), look for hints in the design and the wording.

Be Mindful of the Theme
If this is an annual event for a charity or an organization, check out what has been photographed and documented online to guesstimate your getup. Religious ceremonies, like Bar Mitzvahs and baptisms, deserve respect with prim and proper attire.

Note the Time
As a general rule, parties after 5 p.m. mean more elegant looks, whereas daytime functions tend to be low-key.

Scope Out the Location
A party taking place at someone’s house will probably be more relaxed than one at a venue. But if it’s at a catering hall or a restaurant, browse the website or take a field trip to gauge its chichi quotient. Outdoor shindigs tend to be less formal than indoor functions. Country-club protocol, however, leans toward sundresses, not jeans.