Decoded: The Dos and Don'ts of Every Dress Code

There might be some modern trends that folks of yore could never have envisioned—people really wear sneakers with dresses to dinner?!—but there are a few holdovers from the Golden Age that are still kicking. First and foremost: the classical system of labeling invites to events with certain dress codes. For us, this ancient system of dress codes can be quite confusing—after all, we’re used to wearing our sneakers to dinner.

To help you navigate the landmine that is black tie, creative black tie, business formal, and beyond, we’ve deconstructed the 10 most often-used dress codes for you. You’ll never wonder what to wear to any event ever again.

Scroll down for a detailed list of decoded dress codes, as well as pieces to shop for each one.

Black Tie

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A black-tie event is the epitome of formal. Cocktail-length dresses are only allowed if they are extremely dressy and sleek.

What to Wear: A formal floor-length gown is preferred. Also allowed: a dressy cocktail dress or your best LBD paired with fancier jewelry, which will elevate the overall look.

Black-Tie Optional

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A black-tie-optional event is still dressy but not as strict. In other words, you can wear a formal evening gown, but no one will look at you twice if you choose to wear a cocktail dress.

What to Wear: A formal floor-length evening gown, fancier cocktail dress, a tux-style pantsuit, or LBD.

Business Casual

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This is a professional look that isn’t overly dressy. Think something you could definitely wear to the office (i.e., something on the conservative side) but would feel comfortable wearing to grab a work drink.

What to Wear: An open-collar shirt or sweater with a pencil skirt or trousers. You can also wear a dress, as long as it’s not provocative.

Business Formal

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Imagine what you would wear if you were giving a very important presentation at work. That’s essentially how you should dress for a business-formal event.

What to Wear: A tailored, polished dress with a blazer or a pantsuit. Whatever you wear, style it with appropriate heels. This is not the time for flats or super-high club shoes.

Casual

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Your average brunch look will work. 

What to Wear: A skirt (either long or short) and a plain tee, nice jeans with a button-down blouse, or a cotton sundress. Flats are fine.

Creative Black Tie

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Think black tie with some breathing room. Still formal and dressy but with a smidge of playfulness thrown in.

What to Wear: A dressy cocktail dress, floor-length evening gown, or LBD, plus fun and unique accessories.

Dressy Casual

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Think Olivia Palermo on just about any given day. A look that is casual but not at all lazy or frumpy.

What to Wear: A dressy blouse with jeans and heels, a skirt and top set, a crisp pantsuit, or a dress. Flats are acceptable as long as they are not overtly casual (i.e., no sneakers).

Semiformal

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As the name suggests, a semi-formal event is just that: semiformal. It’s certainly still dressy, but not as much so as a black-tie-optional event.

What to Wear: A cocktail dress, LBD, floor-length skirt and blouse in appropriate fabrics (like silk), or dressy separates. You can also wear a long dress if you wish.

White Tie

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This is the most extravagant of all the dress codes—perhaps that’s why the Met Gala utilized it in 2014. Think full ball gown, elbow-length gloves, and all your best jewelry.

What to Wear: A floor-length evening gown (mandatory), gloves (optional), and your best jewelry. Your dress should incorporate luxe fabrications like lace, silk, and chiffon. 

Cocktail Attire

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As the name suggests, this is a dressy event that is still meant to be primarily social and enjoyable.

What to Wear: A cocktail dress (obviously), LBD, or a shorts suit in more formal fabrications, plus a sleek pair of heels. Flats are not recommended but can work in certain situations.

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This post was published at an earlier date and has been updated.