Demystifying Dress Codes for Special Occasions

a group of older men and women dressed in tuxedos and long formal gowns

Why Getting Event Dressing Right Matters

When you get an invitation that makes a request for what you should wear to an event, it’s understandable that it can be confusing because the world has become so much more casual in how many people dress.  Most wedding invitations will have such a request.  The bride, groom, and family have a theme in mind, and a vision of how they want this important day to look.  This is why getting event dressing right matters:


      • Shows proper respect for the host/hostess

      • Honors cultural traditions

      • Preserves the theme of the event

      • Creates an atmosphere of ease because you fit in

      • Reinforces and protects image

    Invitation Clues to a Formal Event

    The invitation gives you many clues as to how formal the event will be, so look for the following:


        • Weight of the paper – the thicker the paper, the more formal the event.

        • The edges of the paper – painted and deckled edges imply formal.

        • Script – if the script is formal with a dramatic script in a navy, black or metallic, it is likely a formal event.  If the script is casual and in a fun color like coral or turquoise, it is probably a more casual event where your “Sunday Best” would be appropriate.

        • If the invitation has an inner and an outer envelope, this is a traditional invitation and likely to signify that it is formal.  If there is a piece of tissue paper on top of the invitation, it is definitely a formal event.

        • Language – if the invitation states “requests the honor of your presence” it is the most formal and traditional language, while “Please join us” is more casual.

        • Time of the event often indicates formality.  Evening events will be dressier than daytime events.  

        • Wedding location – a traditional church ceremony and country club reception will require cocktail or more formal attire.  Outdoor locations such as barns, beaches, or museums could be dressy; however, often with a little more room for creativity with your wardrobe. This is when it helps to have a request offered for the dress code.  

      Recommended rules for level of dress when it is included in the invitation:

      White Tie Dress Code

      THE most formal of all dress codes.  Invitations will state “white tie”, “full evening dress”, “tails”, or “dress suit”.  White tie is typically reserved for very important and formal occasions.  The Caliber of guests are usually titled, royal, or have high social standing.

      This level of dress has many rules which must be followed.  There is no acceptance for creativity or variations.

      White Tie for Women


          • Full-skirted ball gown or formal floor length gown

          • Tasteful jewelry

          • Long gloves are worn during cocktails, dancing, and going through the reception line and are removed during dinner

        White Tie for Men


            • Black coat with tails worn open and unbuttoned

            • White pique vest worn over a formal white shirt

            • Hand tied white pique bow tie

            • Cufflinks instead of buttons

            • Men carry their white gloves

            • Black patent leather shoes

          Black Tie Dress Code

          A formal dress code that is usually reserved for evening occasions such as a dinner party, awards ceremony, milestone birthday, anniversary, or wedding.

          Black tie is typically reserved for evening events beginning after 6:00 pm. It is not worn for a daytime event. If the invitation is for a black tie wedding, women do not wear white.

          Black Tie for Women

          Black Tie for Men


              • Floor length gowns

              • Dressy evening separates

              • Sophisticated clutch bag

              • Heels


                • Traditional black tuxedo

                • Formal white shirt

                • Black or colored bow tie and cummerbund

                • Black patent leather shoes

              Black Tie Optional Dress Code

              Black Tie Optional is slightly less formal than Black Tie and allows for more flexibility. An invitation will state Black Tie Optional to take the pressure of a requirement for guests to dress in Black Tie attire even though it is most likely what they would prefer. Essentially, the desire is for the event to look like and be a formal affair, and it removes the stress and burden to those who may not be able to invest in an evening gown or a tuxedo. It is also reserved for evening events that begin after 6:00 pm. Anything you would wear to a daytime event; however, would not be considered appropriate for a Black-Tie Optional event. Men are requested to wear a tuxedo, but can opt for a dark suit, and women can choose either a formal evening gown, a shorter cocktail dress, or dressy evening separates.

              Cocktail Attire Dress Code

              Cocktail attire is less formal than black tie and dressier than a business suit or a daytime dress. It is important to pay attention to the venue and location. It is an in-between dress code, meaning not formal nor too casual.

              Cocktail Attire for Women


                  • Cocktail dresses or dressy pantsuits

                  • Hemlines above floor-length

                  • Tasteful rather than risqué

                Cocktail Attire for Men


                    • Dark suits

                    • Ties are optional but recommended

                    • No jeans or sneakers

                    • Footwear should be sharp and polished

                  Creative Formal & Creative Cocktail Dress Codes

                  This dress code is a unique and modern take on formal wear and cocktail that calls for a mix of formal attire blended with touches of personal style. It is embraced by many celebrities and has become a prominent form of dressing at award shows and major Hollywood events. Creative black-tie outfits include the use of different patterns and prints, and bolder colors and textures to create a fun and personalized look instead of sticking to the classic black. It’s an opportunity to think outside of the box.