How To Translate Dress Codes From That Confusing RSVP

Dr nStyle - Fashion, Beauty & Lifestyle Blog

I was recently reading about a celebrity’s wedding where she requested that there be “no ankles,” meaning all women were to wear floor-length dresses. However, despite the request, there were still guests wearing cocktail attire. She seemed a little frustrated by that. I can’t say that I blame her. She had a vision for her day and not all of her guests respected it, for whatever reason. I don’t doubt that she was just as pleased to have them be part of her day regardless of what they were wearing, just that it was a little disappointing. 

As we start another season with a new string of RSVPs for parties, galas, and weddings, I think it’s worth having another discussion about dress codes.  I know, I know. You say, “but I want to be free to express myself!” Yes, it is important that you express yourself, and most dress codes do allow for some stretch. However, in some instances, sticking to a specific manner of dress is vital to show your respect for the host or respect for a certain occasion. 

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As an example, you know immediately when you see an army soldier in uniform. In addition to functional purposes, the soldier’s uniform serves as a symbol of solidarity, strength, and power. It separates the soldier from the civilian. On the other hand, if you see someone wearing a jersey, baseball cap, and holding a bat, you know it’s a baseball player. What if, at a military funeral, one soldier saluted while wearing a red baseball cap? Right. It doesn’t fit. In fact, many would consider that unacceptable and even disrespectful.

Even if I didn’t have to convince you to follow the dress code, I can understand your trepidation.  Some dress codes are familiar and more obvious than others; others are less well established.  Some dress codes even seem to be made up!  So I have compiled a list of common (and not-so-common) dress codes for your reference. 

Casual also called Informal

This one is easy. Nothing too dressy is required. It’s what you’d probably wear to go hang out with your friends or to go see a movie in. You have free reign… wear your sneakers, your flip-flops, t-shirts, and jeans.

Country Club Casual, aka “Preppy”

Bring out your tennis skirts!  This is just what you would think. Ladies, go for simple blouses with trousers, polo shirts or dresses.  Choose fabrics like cotton and linen in light colors and shoes for being outdoors.

Dressy Casual, or Semiformal

 You read that correctly. I’ve seen this in places also called semiformal, which is more than a little confusing and not very accurate. This is a dress code you may see associated with some early evening events or afternoon tea. It’s somewhere below Black Tie Optional and above Cocktail in formality.

An appropriate option would be a short dress, preferably knee-length, but no more than 2 inches above the knee. Your LBB would be perfect. Also, good choices for this type of event include pantsuits or dressy jumpsuits.

Casual Dressy, or Smart Casual

I’ve seen this more and more, particularly with contemporary restaurants or gastropubs. This is one tick up from casual. Ladies, think about what you might wear if you were going to grab a drink with your friends. 

You can wear jeans, even distressed (but not gross and dirty!) jeans. If you want to wear sneakers, go for the chic current kinds. Jeans with heels are good, as are slacks with boots or even a jumpsuit.

Business Casual 

Contrary to popular belief, business casual dress does not include jeans (or denim of any kind), nor does it include sneakers. Sorry to burst your bubble! There are, however, plenty of options that would likely make you as equally comfortable or more.

Women should wear slacks/pants or a pencil skirt with a blouse, plus or minus a blazer. You may wear crops, gauchos, or palazzo pants these days. The key here is anything that makes you look polished but relaxed.

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This is the type of dress that would be typical of a nice brunch or afternoon tea, daytime engagement party, or a business breakfast.  Again, you should opt for a knee-length dress or just one that falls just above the knee.  Save the sparkles and cleavage for another time.  You may also add a jacket or shawl, particularly if you are not sure whether your attire is conservative enough.

Business Formal

A business formal dress code is commonly found at daytime events like luncheons or conferences. Essentially it is a dressed-up version of office wear. It would be best for you to wear a tailored dress, like a shift, or pantsuit.  Colors should be of a neutral palette and jewelry should be conservative.

Cocktail or Cocktail Chic

 You will likely be very familiar with this party-ready dress code as well because it is very common and there is a wide range of styles that are accepted and appropriate.  Short dresses are welcome, from you LBB to LWD, as are a wide range of shoe types. It just depends on your personal style and the venue. As a general rule, the later the event starts, the dressier you can go. 


This mode of dress is very common during holidays like Christmas and New Year. It is similar to cocktail attire, with the added bonus of anything special to the season: sequins, velvet, beading, or plaid.  But it’s not exclusive to the winter months.  Festive attire is characteristic of really any themed party, as in Halloween or Masquerade parties. 

Beach Formal, Garden Attire, Summer Formal, Dressy Resort

 This way of dress has several names, but the same idea. The goal is comfort and style.  Anything light and dressy is welcome.  A summer sundress with sandals is appropriate, or a jumpsuit.  If you are attending a beach wedding, remember to think of your footwear—you may want to wear flats, dress sandals, or wedges as opposed to pumps.

Creative Black Tie

This is probably the least conservative of the Black Ties for women. You will have more freedom to follow the current trends, whatever they may be: capes, feathers, etc. There can be separates, prints, non-traditional fabrics, and interesting colors. Both long dresses and short dresses can be considered appropriate for Creative Black Tie dress.  Texas Black Tie is a type of Creative Black Tie, in which attendees will wear cowboy hats and boots.  You’ll find this dress at some galas, silent auctions, weddings, and some formal dinners.

Warm Weather Black Tie

This type of black tie is characteristic of some outdoor events and is seen on cruise lines, at country club dinners, galas, and some outdoor weddings.  The type of dress you would wear would be long and of lighter weight fabric, which makes sense for warmer weather.  Traditionally, women either wear gloves or if not, they would opt for a long-sleeved dress.  Jewelry tends to be a little simpler.

Need some examples of warm weather black tie? Check out this Pinterest board for inspiration!  

Black Tie Optional, or Formal

The Black Tie Optional dress code really means that if you are able to go black tie, you should. However, for whatever reason you cannot, you should still look as formal as possible. Here, cocktail dresses are also appropriate, as are luxury separates. Long gloves are acceptable here, and you may also wear fancy jewelry.   Some examples of Black Tie Optional events include galas, silent auctions, formal dinners, or weddings. 

Black Tie 

You will find that a lot of charity fundraisers, political dinner parties, and weddings will have a dress code designated as Black Tie. For women, this means a floor-length dress or gown, with fancy jewelry.  It is very unlikely that a cocktail dress will be appropriate, but it depends on the venue.

Take you to some examples of black-tie attire? It would be my pleasure! Just click the link above to be sent to a Pinterest board for inspiration. 

White tie 

This is as fancy as they come, so get ready to dress to the nines. You’ll see this type of dress during some charity fundraisers, weddings, opera, and even government ceremonies.  Floor-length gowns with opera length gloves are the rule (keep the gloves on with drinks and dancing, but take them off for dinner).  Jewelry is glamorous and opulent.

So, there you have it…

Although dress codes are supposed to guide you in the proper attire for a given event, they are sometimes unclear or not stated at all.  To make things worse, they are a function of social norms and are based on culture. It can be a challenge to figure out what exactly the most appropriate dress might be.  But if all else fails, just ask the host what he/she is going to wear to give you an idea of the expected dress.

Thinking about getting a fabulous new dress online? Let me tell you how to shop for a dress online so that you avoid a fashion fail!


Dr nStyle - Fashion, Beauty & Lifestyle Blog

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