What to Wear to (Pretty Much) Every Occasion
Weddings, baptisms, networking events, funerals, job interviews, barbecues, holiday parties, baby and bridal showers—what do they all have in common? It’s always confusing to figure out what to wear to them. What you wear to any of these occasions depends on so many factors: the venue, the formality of the invite, the weather, and often what everyone else plans to wear. But there are still some general sartorial standards to look to for guidance. (And do remember that most dress code “rules” are more like guidelines—with a few exceptions, like avoid wearing white to a wedding.)
To put an end to the what-do-I-wear dilemma once and for all, Real Simple fashion editors and experts break down and translate every imaginable event dress code, including practical tips, etiquette answers, and outfit suggestions, right here.
Here’s exactly what to wear to….
A Baptism, Bar Mitzvah, or Other Religious Ceremony
Rely on a pretty daytime dress, maybe in a petal or floral, or a suit paired with feminine underpinnings and accents. Avoid anything low cut, short, or clingy, and bring a light sweater, blazer, or neat jacket to cover up sleeveless styles. If there’s a reception immediately following the ceremony, and no time to change in between, wear a cocktail dress or dressy pants with a jacket or wrap to cover up in the temple or church.
A Black-Tie Wedding or Charity Gala
Think: tuxedos, shimmery fabrics, and ornate details. While etiquette rules are softening on the question of dress length, your best bet is a tea- or floor-length gown. A column or A-line dress is most sophisticated, but you could definitely wear a well-tailored, chic, and formal suit. Now’s the time to elevate your look with elegant jewelry, fabulous shoes, and a great hairstyle.
If the invite says “black tie optional,” you can feel free to loosen up slightly. For example, if you don’t own a long gown, a formal knee-length cocktail dress is appropriate.
A Cocktail Party, Engagement Party, and Most Weddings
The party dress code for one of these relatively fancy events will likely be “cocktail attire” (although they’re not quite as fancy as a black-tie party). Opt for a cocktail dress—you can’t go wrong with a little black dress, or a stand-out jewel-tone or pastel number. You can also mix it up with dressy separates.
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 appetizers. 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 fashion stylist Joseph Williamson. “Avoid fabrics that are too casual, like chino, jersey, and denim.” Also stay away from super-short styles. To test if a hemline is appropriate, stand with your hands at your sides: The hem shouldn’t be higher than your fingertips.
One more thing to note is that different cities have their own dress codes. No need to overthink it, but it’s good to keep in mind. “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,” says Lauren A. Rothman, founder of Style Auteur, a fashion-consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.
A Holiday Party, Dinner Party, or "Festive Attire" Event
These occasions let you push the limits on glitz and color. So, in essence, almost anything goes, as long as it’s nice enough to suit the venue and occasion. Have fun with a statement necklace or earrings that wow. Pair it with a colorful dress, a sleek jumpsuit, or a festive top paired with a fun midi skirt or palazzo pants. Bonus points if you rock textured embellishments, like feathers, tassels, lace, sequins, beading, or bows.
An Outdoor, Day, or More Casual Wedding
Assuming an outdoor wedding is happening when the weather’s warm, opt for a flowy sundress, a glam maxi dress, or a stylish shift dress. It’s not that black isn’t allowed, but lighter and brighter shades—and splashy patterns—often feel more appropriate. Shoot for shades that complement the natural surroundings, like blues, greens, yellows, and coral. When it comes to shoes, stick with flat soles for any event where you’ll be either a lawn or on the beach.
"For day weddings, which tend to be more casual, steer clear of anything heavily beaded or sequined," says Rothman. 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.
A Bridal Shower or Baby Shower
Something like a flattering, feminine dress, printed skirt and sweater, or a fun pair of pants and a flowy top works great for showers. Wear flats or heels (whatever you’re comfortable in), or opt for cute booties if it’s chilly out. And remember that bridal showers follow similar rules to a wedding: Wearing white should be reserved for the bride, unless she or the shower hosts specify otherwise. Black isn’t forbidden, but make sure it leans more on the side of chic than somber.
A Job Interview
Keep it clean, professional, and appropriate. Pumps and a tailored suit (pants or a skirt) or simple black or navy dress always work great as a job interview outfit. These tend to be the standard for most corporate companies, although if you’re job-searching in a more laid-back industry, like at a tech startup, design firm, or hip magazine, feel more free to express your personal style. However, veering too trendy or casual can be off-putting. Steer clear of jangly, distracting jewelry, and avoid denim (yes, even if the prospective company dress code is casual; you should always be more dressed up than the people who work there).
Don’t overthink what to wear to a graduation event. It’s nice and neat, but not super dressy. If you’re the graduate, don’t put on anything you’ll regret wearing in tons of graduation photos or at a celebratory lunch with your grandparents. A knee-length colorful, white, or floral dress is a great option that fits the exciting occasion. Wear comfortable heels, flats, wedges, or nice sandals you know you can smoothly walk across the stage in.
For someone else’s graduation, follow similar guidelines as above, or as you would for a springtime baptism, bar mitzvah or Easter celebration: neat, fun, and thoughtful, but not overly fancy. Try chic, cropped pants and a nice top, a pretty patterned skirt, or a cheerful sundress made with nice fabric. Many graduations take place in late spring or early summer, and often involve sitting outside for long grad ceremonies, so mind the weather. You might be sweltering hot in long sleeves or pants, so opt for a breezy A-line dress or skirt to keep cool. If it’s raining, you may be moved to an over-air-conditioned auditorium or gymnasium, so bring a wrap or sweater to keep from freezing.
A Family Get-Together, Barbecue, or Birthday Party
Go laid-back with a pair of nice jeans, a fun top, and stylish sneakers, sandals, or flats. Relaxed vibes are great, but before you get too comfortable, leave the yoga pants, graphic tees, and worse-for-wear sneakers at home. Take a cue from the host: If they’re always dressed to impress, put some effort into your look, too.
A Funeral or Wake
A safe route for what to wear to a funeral is usually a pantsuit or knee-length dress with a cardigan or jacket on top. Jewelry should be quiet and refined (simple studs and a minimalist pendant necklace). This is not the time to look flashy or trendy; keep it neat, respectful, and modest (unless you’ve been told otherwise).
As for color, black is a standard choice, but not mandatory. What’s most important is to convey the solemnity 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. Dark and discrete patterns are also perfectly acceptable.
A Business Dinner, Work Party, or Networking Event
One adjective to give you direction: polished. 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,” Williamson says.
Go a step up from what you’d wear to the office. Wear a pretty necklace or nicer blouse with your suit, or try a skirt and heels instead of pants and flats. You know your company dress code best, but again, err on the side of conservative, especially if you’ll be mingling with clients or work superiors. For a casual outing, like the company picnic or charity 3K run, it’s OK to dress comfortably for the activities on the itinerary—as long as you skip anything questionable or provocative (super-revealing tank tops, barely-there ripped denim shorts, or T-shirts with eyebrow-raising messaging or graphics).
On a Cruise
The good news here is that your chosen cruise line will most likely have a website with an explainer of what to pack for your trip in general, as well as its specific cruise ship dining and event dress codes.
During the day, for a warm-weather cruise, pack what you would for a warm beach vacation: shorts, breezy shirts, sundresses, skirts, bathing suits, coverups, sandals, and sneakers. For a cold-weather cruise, pack a variety of things you might wear during the day on a fall or winter getaway: jeans, leggings, slacks, sweaters, sneakers, winter coat, boots, and flats (bring a bathing suit or two if there’s a hot tub or indoor pool on board). Be comfortable and relaxed, but aware that you’re not at home by yourself.
Many cruise ships have multiple restaurant options that range in formality, from totally casual (barring bathing suits without cover ups, bare feet, and ripped jeans) to smart casual and formal. Otherwise, if there’s only one main dining room, the dress code may change over the course of the cruise (for example, casual the first night, and formal or maybe even black-tie to celebrate the last night). Bring a few dinner outfit options for each requirement. You can’t go wrong with a knee-length sundress, or clean white jeans and a nice top, paired with sandals or flats for a casual dinner. Step that up with nicer pants in place of white denim, elegant jewelry and a pair of wedges or chunky heels for a smart-casual night. For formal nights, fancy tea- or floor-length dresses, heels, and a pretty wrap work perfectly. Again, some cruises incorporate a black-tie dinner, in which case, go ahead and dress to the nines.