If you’ve ever received an invitation to a party and been confused about dress code, you’re not alone. The truth is, few people know the difference between semi-formal and formal; black tie and white tie. While you may never have reason to don a top-hat and tails, knowing what counts as appropriate dress for a particular event will help you to protect your personal brand identity and show up looking your best.
Cocktail attire is a step up from your everyday business casual look. It’s appropriate for after-work parties, most art events, and some weddings. Men do well in classic black or navy suits, and can even have fun with patterned shirts and ties. Women can wear cocktail dresses and needn’t worry about a minimum or maximum length, though they should keep office-standards in mind if the event is work-sponsored or they’re bound to run into colleagues.
You can expect this dress code at events like office Christmas parties, gallery openings, and some weddings. It’s less formal than black tie but more formal than cocktail attire. Women can generally wear cocktail dresses as long as they fall no more than an inch above the knee. Men can pair a nice sports coat with a great pair of slacks, vest, and tie. If the event takes place after 6 PM, suits should be wool, polyester or gabardine. Women should focus on fabrics like taffeta, chiffon, velvet, satin, cashmere, and silk.
This dress code causes the most confusion, especially for men, but it’s straightforward. If the invitation says “Black Tie Optional” then you have a choice: you can go in a tuxedo or wear a suit. That doesn’t mean that you show up in the same old dark suit you inherited from your father twenty years ago; it means you wear something that fits your body correctly. Whether you’re at a business casual lunch or a formal wedding, no one will recognize the merit of your suit if it doesn’t fit correctly, even if it cost a small fortune. So, get it tailored!
For women, formal attire generally means a long gown. If you don’t own a gown or don’t want to wear one, you can opt for a beautiful pantsuit, but make sure to dress it up with accessories.
A white tie dress code requires the most formal outfit and doesn’t allow a lot of room for personal style, though you can opt to wear a black or navy tail-coat with matching trousers. However, your shirt must be a white wing-collared dress shirt and you must wear a bow tie and cuff links. For women, white tie affords a bit more latitude. All formal gowns are acceptable, regardless of color.
Preparation is Everything
If your event is happening immediately after work, you’ll want to prepare well in advance and bring whatever you need to the office with you. This might mean a complete change of clothes or simply a different jacket, shoe, tie or dress. Women should remember to update their makeup and swap out the bulky every-day purse for a small clutch.
A little forethought is all it takes to stand out in the right way and allow your personal brand to shine. If you’re interested in stepping up your look for the next special event, contact me to see how a personal image consult can help.