We’ve all been there: An invite arrives with rules that create more questions than answers about what to wear. Wacky dress codes are the new norm. Here’s how to deal.

By Elizabeth Holmes
Updated November 29, 2017
Composite of dress code options
Credit: Bijou Karman

The moment of truth came at the coat check. It was a brisk December evening, and I nervously watched one guest after another peel off their jacket and reveal their attire. I spied a woman in a strapless gold cocktail dress on one side and a guy in jeans and a blazer on the other. Over to my left was another couple, the woman in a red satin backless gown with her hair swept up in a chignon. Her date was wearing a tuxedo. Down the hall was a guy in a T-shirt and sneakers.

This sartorial cornucopia was the holiday party for the big tech company where my husband works. It was our first time at the annual event, and as soon as I lined up a babysitter, I asked Matt the most pressing question: What is the dress code? He said he didn’t think there was one. Cue the record-scratching screech. No dress code? I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. His office is filled with techies straight out of central casting. Employees of all ranks sport jeans and T-shirts. Wearing a suit is practically a cause for concern: Are you feeling OK? Do you have a job interview?

I learned afterward that the holiday party actually did have a dress code (and it mentioned formal wear), one my husband claims not to have seen or heard about. The fact that it was not widely discussed among his coworkers, even after he inquired, seems to fit with the overall anything-goes style vibe of the culture at his workplace.

Before the party, I pressed him for clues as I scanned my own closet. The event was on a weeknight, so he insisted everyone would come straight from work. But it didn’t start until 7 p.m., I countered, which gave people time to go home and change. That morning, my husband decided to dress up his usual office attire of jeans and a collared shirt by swapping out his sneakers for dress shoes and adding a gray blazer. I settled on a wide-leg black jumpsuit with a moto leather blazer and velvet heels, tucking a red lipstick into my clutch. Matt says he felt fine in jeans at the party, but I ducked into the bathroom to apply lipstick at my first glimpse of a sequined gown.

Welcome to dress code chaos. Well-intended hosts, who don’t want to limit what their guests can wear, are offering fewer instructions. Others are introducing creative dress codes (“Caribbean chic,” anyone? “Dressy casual”?) that can raise more questions than they answer. And party attendees, especially those not used to any style constraints (cough, my hus- band, cough) are doing as they please. The result is often a mess of style mash-ups.

The social-circuit confusion is part of a broader movement toward a much less rigid set of sartorial rules in our everyday life. Sneakers can be worn just about anywhere, including a Broadway show. Yoga pants are seen as appropriate attire at yoga, obviously, but also at brunch, the mall, or even the office.

Traditional business-formal stalwarts, like banks and law firms, have started to loosen their ties. JPMorgan Chase said last year in a widely reported internal memo that business casual (read: not a suit) is appropriate for most occasions. Restaurants are relaxing their standards, too.

If fashion trends are any indication, things won’t be getting much clearer anytime soon. “Denim is the hottest trend in the market,” says Brooke Jaffe, former fashion director of Bloomingdale’s, who is now a fashion consultant working with brands and start-ups. The fall 2017 runways were filled with jeans. Even Jonathan Simkhai, a designer known for dresses, showed pairs in his collection. Bloomingdale’s relaxed the dress code for its corporate employees, deemphasizing its signature all-black style and allowing more fashion. Jaffe, a 10-year veteran of the upscale department store, gave herself her own set of rules while working there: Jeans were OK, but distressed denim was a step too far. And she kept a black blazer and black pointy-toed heels at her desk, she says, “just in case.”

The tech scene has complicated matters, upending the idea that how people dress signifies their place in the social hierarchy. “Suddenly the guy in the Atari T-shirt and the oldest jeans is the richest guy in the room,” says style expert Stacy London, author of The Truth About Style and former cohost of the long-running TLC show What Not to Wear. Silicon Valley style has exacerbated the differences between the sexes, too. Mark Zuckerberg is typically in a hoodie or T-shirt, but have you ever seen Sheryl Sandberg in one? She often sports heels in her public appearances.

This eclectic code has spread from our daily lives to our special events. Creative dress suggestions abound. A wedding requesting “Brooklyn formal” attire stumped Silpa Kovvali. Typically, she would invoke the phone-a-friend option, she says, “to make sure if we all missed the mark, we did so together.” But she was attending as a plus one and didn’t know the other guests.

Kovvali, now 29 and a research associate at Harvard Business School, hemmed and hawed over what to wear. And even when she made her choice—a long black-and-white gown from White House Black Market, with an off-the-shoulder black blouse layered on top—uncertainty prevailed. “I felt like I looked good, but it was not a clear winner,” says Kovvali. In the end, she and her date, who wore a suit and Converse sneakers, fit in nicely at the wedding, which took place in a Brooklyn warehouse filled with terrariums.

Lizzie Post, copresident of the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of the famed etiquette expert, is in favor of creative dress codes as long as the expectation is clear. “If you just say ‘creative black tie,’ guests will wonder, ‘Which way should I be creative?’ ” she says. The more direction you can give, the better. And the only dress codes that should be listed on a wedding invitation, says Post, are ones with a black- or white-tie expectation, including “black tie optional.” Many men don’t own a tuxedo, so an early mention gives guests time to procure one. Other dress information belongs elsewhere, such as on a wedding website

But what if you need time to procure a flannel shirt? Younger hosts with more creative requests are bucking traditional etiquette rules. An insert as part of the invitation to Meg Linehan and Marjorie Corbman’s nuptials, set amid Vermont’s fall foliage, instructed guests to wear their “best chilly-weather apple-picking outfit.” The couple wanted their friends and family to be warm and comfortable. Linehan, 33, suggested it almost as a joke: “Then we were like, ‘No, that’s great.’” Linehan and Corbman, 30, appreciated dress guidelines at events they had attended in the past and decided to put their nontraditional request on their invitation “details” card as a way of helping their guests. “Flannel and fleece are encouraged,” it read, and suggested attendees wear “Bean boots” (as in L.L.Bean).

A creative dress code puts the onus on the guests to rise to the occasion or bow out altogether. Genevieve Pearson, who works in television development in Los Angeles, was invited to a “beach chic casual” party earlier this year, which stumped her for a couple of days. When it was raining on the day of the party, she shared her lament on Twitter: “So...yellow lighthouse keeper slicker and heels?” A search of Pinterest suggested nautical attire, so in the end the 34-year-old opted for a dress with a blue-and-white striped boatneck top and a khaki skirt.

Other creative dress codes, says Pearson, feel designed for social media, a way to ensure hosts show off their creativity and parties get wider attention. One event—not for Halloween— called for “Marvel superhero” attire (she dressed as a female version of Star-Lord); another called for “spots, stripes, and sparkles” (she wore a polka-dot dress with a plaid shirt over it and a glittery headband).

Pearson drew the line at the “Dress Like an Internet Meme” party. She couldn’t come up with anything, so she stayed home instead. “Sometimes when you see the parties nowadays and you see the dress code, you just think, ‘I’m too tired,’” she says.