How to Dress for Any Occasion
It's safe to say that fashion is an evolving thing—women don't dress the same today as we did in the 1890's (or even, for that matter, as we did in the 1990's). Although it logically follows, few people realize that the etiquette around fashion also evolves. (It's officially ok to wear white, even after Labor Day, folks! Trust.) While some traditions hold fast for good reason—for example, unless specifically requested, never wear white to a wedding to avoid competing with or upstaging the bride on her big day—it's time to leave others in the past, where they belong. Here's a handy guide to help make sense of these new sartorial standards.
The Occasion: A Wedding
Old etiquette: Don’t wear white or black or red.
New etiquette: Black and red are perfectly fine, but white is still the ultimate wedding no-no.
What to wear: Let the invitation, the season, and the hour be your guides. (If you’re at a loss and you’re close to the bride, ask her what’s right; otherwise, consult the maid of honor or the bride’s mother.)
"For day weddings, which tend to be more casual, steer clear of anything heavily beaded or sequined," says Lauren A. Rothman, founder of Style Auteur, a fashion-consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. Instead, opt for a knee-length dress in a material like cotton; in warmer weather or regions, strapless styles and open-toed shoes get the nod of approval. "Simple hats" also earn a thumbs-up, says Amy Lindquist, head of Lindquist Fashion & Image Consulting, in Minneapolis. If the ceremony is in the afternoon and the reception in the evening and the invitation doesn’t specify dress, assume the event is semiformal, which calls for a cocktail dress or an evening suit in a color that won’t upstage the bride. “Pale pink is OK―hot pink is not,” says Lindquist.
Black tie once meant floor-length gowns. Now, at all but the grandest affairs, dresses as short as knee-length are acceptable, provided they have a semiformal or formal cut and fabric; silk or a silk blend, for instance, would be appropriate. As for wearing a strapless or sleeveless dress in a house of worship, some have strict rules about covering up; check the protocol beforehand or bring a wrap.
Should you be invited to the rehearsal dinner, “they vary greatly in formality, so note where it’s being held,” says Lizzie Post, an etiquette authority, an author, and a spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute. In general, “cocktail-party rules apply,” Joseph Williamson, a fashion stylist in New York City. “Save your better outfit for the big day, but wear something dressy to the dinner. A dress and a jacket or a cardigan with some sparkle would be nice. But keep it understated.” Remember―there’s only one shining star at matrimonial shindigs, and it’s not you.
The Occasion: A Cocktail Party
Old etiquette: No surprise here―a cocktail dress.
New etiquette: Cocktail dresses are always in style, but you have other options.
What to wear: These days, a cocktail party can be anything from a swanky society affair―cue that glittery knee-length number from the “special occasions” department―to a low-key group of friends gathered around a platter of crudités. But for the most part, “cocktail parties are dressy-casual, so you can’t go wrong if you wear a top with some special details and a skirt or tailored pants, plus heels or fancy flats,” says Williamson. “Avoid fabrics that are too casual, like chino, jersey, and denim.”
A fitted cashmere or fine-gauge merino-wool top with a knee-length satin skirt, heels, earrings, and an armful of stacked bangles is just right, he says. Sue Fox, an etiquette authority based in Paso Robles, California, and the author of Etiquette for Dummies ($22, amazon.com), also suggests a pantsuit, provided it doesn’t look too corporate. (Under the jacket, wear a silky camisole or some other feminine top with an evening vibe.) Keep in mind that different cities have their own dress codes, says Rothman: “Cocktail attire in Miami is just as dressy and chic as in New York, regardless of the weather differences, while in San Diego it’s interpreted a bit more casually, because the city is relaxed.”
The Occasion: A Dinner Party
Old etiquette: A little black dress and heels.
New etiquette: Gauge your outfit by the party.
What to wear: Given the number of variables (what time of year is it? who are your hosts? is it a special occasion?), there’s no one right answer, which can make things a bit tricky. If you underdress, you risk offending your dinner companions. Overdress by a mile and “you can make your host feel inadequate, insecure, or uncomfortable,” etiquette authority Sue Fox points out. The solution: “Ask the host for advice,” says fashion consultant Lauren A. Rothman. It’s the best way to find out if you’re in for a denim-welcome get-together or a more buttoned-up, skirt-and-blouse affair. Still worried about hitting the mark? "Stash dangly earrings or a pretty scarf in your bag to dress up an outfit if need be," advises etiquette authority Lizzie Post.
The Occasion: A Business Dinner or a Company Party
Old etiquette: Your nine-to-five wear puts in some overtime.
New etiquette: Keep things professional (you’re still working) but in line with the event.
What to wear: When you’re dressing for a work function, the culture of your office should prevail. “If it’s a conservative environment, dress conservatively for events, too,” says fashion stylist Joseph Williamson. But no matter how relaxed your office environment or the occasion (that means you, company picnic!), never wear anything provocative. “A too-revealing outfit can prevent you from being taken seriously when it comes to job promotions,” warns Fox. And, yes, that includes the “sexy cat” costume you’ve been eyeing for the annual Halloween bash.
For business dinners, office wear is appropriate (provided your workplace isn’t overly casual): trousers with a refined sweater or a blouse and blazer. If you’re going to a work party straight from the office, try a sheath or a wrap dress in a dark shade, or “wear a suit and bring along a feminine blouse and evening-appropriate shoes, like in a metallic shade,” suggests Leah Ingram, an etiquette authority and the founder of giftsandetiquette.com, based in New Hope, Pennsylvania. “Or you could simply swap your jewelry for something a little bolder―a chunky necklace instead of pearls.” As for that company picnic, choose knee-length shorts and a short-sleeve top, or a sundress with sandals―nothing ripped, frayed, or strapless.
The Occasion: A Job Interview
Old etiquette: A conservative dark suit. End of story.
New etiquette: You can’t go wrong with a suit, but in many fields it’s not the only (or best) choice.
What to wear: At large, traditional companies, suits are still the standard. “There aren’t appropriate alternatives to a suit, and wearing one tells me you are seriously interested in the position,” says legal recruiter Kim Mains, manager of legal recruiting for Cozen O’Connor, a law firm based in Philadelphia. However, in many creative or artistic fields―design, media, retail, technology―it can be a plus to step outside of the box: Try a sheath dress with a wide belt and a cardigan, or a pencil skirt with a blouse and a cropped jacket. “When I’m hiring, I like to see an outfit that tells me the candidate has a personal sense of style,” says Paul Howalt, creative director and owner of Tactix Creative, a branding firm in Mesa, Arizona.
That said, no matter how casual the environment, don’t assume that it’s cool to wear jeans to an interview. “Don’t dress as if the job is yours,” cautions Peri Hansen, a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, an executive-search firm in Los Angeles. When in doubt, she says, “call the interviewer’s assistant or the HR executive and ask what’s appropriate. It shows interest and respect.” In all cases, your clothing should be impeccably clean, ironed, and tailored. Under no circumstances should it be skimpy, plunging, or tight.
The Occasion: A Baptism, a Bar Mitzvah, or Some Other Religious Ceremony
Old etiquette: Trot out the Sunday finery. Florals welcome, hats and gloves preferred!
New etiquette: Honor the occasion in attire that is tasteful, not stuffy.
What to wear: For starters, “choose an outfit that’s appropriate in a religious facility―not too low-cut or clingy,” says etiquette authority Lizzie Post. (If you’ve never been to a particular house of worship, it’s a good idea to double-check its conventions.) Just as important is steering clear of anything overly serious when you’re celebrating a happy milestone in a child’s life. For a baptism, “wear a little bit of color, like a bright suit or a pretty daytime dress,” says Post. The dress code for a Bar Mitzvah or a Bat Mitzvah can be determined by the party held afterward. “If the party immediately follows the service, you’ll wear the same thing to both, so put on a cocktail dress, but make sure to cover up with a jacket or a shawl at the temple,” says fashion consultant Lauren A. Rothman. “If there’s a break before the reception, you may want to change.” A feminine suit works well for the service; wear something dressier to the party.
The Occasion: A Funeral or a Wake
Old etiquette: If you’re in mourning, you’re in black.
New etiquette: Your outfit doesn’t have to be black; it does have to be respectful.
What to wear: What’s most important is to convey the somberness of the event, which can be accomplished with toned-down clothing in “dark neutrals, like navy, brown, and forest green,” says etiquette expert Leah Ingram. (Pantsuits and lightweight wool dresses are a safe bet.) Dark and discreet patterns are also fine, as are quiet and classic accessories, like pearls and stud earrings. “This is not the time for your orange-and-yellow Indonesian necklace,” says Rothman. Adds Post, “You shouldn’t be wearing anything festive or fun, unless you’ve been told otherwise.” If you suspect something might be pushing the envelope, skip it.
The Occasion: A Night at the Theater, the Ballet, or the Opera
Old etiquette: All about puttin’ on the ritz.
New etiquette: You’ve got a pretty wide berth. Still, spiff it up!
What to wear: Once upon a time, these evenings out were considered a license to dress to the nines. Nowadays, though, you’re more likely to spot jeans and an I Heart NY T-shirt at a Broadway show than formal wear. But just because you can be casual doesn’t mean you should be. “You paid a fair amount for a nice evening out, so why drop the ball when it comes to your outfit?” says wardrobe consultant Amy Lindquist. On opening night, “go for broke and dress as you would for any black-tie occasion. Otherwise, dress as for a cocktail party: a sophisticated suit or a tailored shirt, trousers, and heels,” advises fashion stylist Joseph Williamson. But recognize regional differences. “In Burlington, Vermont, we would not show up to the ballet in an evening gown. But plenty of people in New York City do,” says Post. “Know your town and what’s expected.” And if ultimately you feel that you absolutely prefer to be in jeans, choose a pair in a dark wash with no holes or distressing.
The Occasion: A Good First Impression (a First Date, Meeting the In-Laws, School Functions)
Old etiquette: A conservative twinset and a skirt to show how ladylike you are.
New etiquette: Dress true to your personality―but this isn’t the time to take risks.
What to wear: First and foremost, you should feel like you. "Select an outfit that makes you feel great about yourself," says fashion stylist Joseph Williamson. “If there’s a particular color you look really good in or a pair of pants you’ve gotten a lot of compliments on, start with that.” The cautionary note: As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, so avoid potential eyebrow-raisers. “Don’t wear anything too tight or short, and don’t try too many trends at once,” says fashion consultant Lauren A. Rothman. “For a first date, pick an outfit that’s colorful and feminine and leaves something to the imagination, like a wrap dress.”
An easy but proper ensemble for a school event would be a sheath with a cashmere wrap or trousers and a jacket. When meeting the in-laws, look to your partner for cues about how formal (or not) his family is. (Why deny yourself a cheat sheet?) “Definitely find out their expectations and how they like to dress,” says etiquette authority Lizzie Post. “My boyfriend’s parents were perfectly happy to meet me in jeans and a tee, but others might be more traditional.”
The Occasion: A Party That Calls for “Festive Attire”
Old etiquette: What old etiquette? Hosts only recently began confounding their guests with the f-word.
New etiquette: Get dolled up; have fun with it.
What to wear: “‘Festive’ means wearing playful cocktail attire,” explains etiquette authority Sue Fox. “There are lots of options, from slinky tops with dressy slacks to a dress in a bold color or print.” Or start with a little black dress and dial it up with a fancy clutch and something glittery, like a cocktail ring or chandelier earrings. You might consider whether there’s a theme at play and “if you can incorporate that into your attire,” says Post. Don’t overdo it, though. For a Cinco de Mayo bash, you could opt for a peasant top and large hoop earrings, but hold the line there; you don’t want to cross into costume territory. And when a holiday invitation calls for festive attire, don’t feel pressured into wearing anything that’s red or green―or that features reindeer.