It’s exasperating. And it happens more often than anyone cares to admit. We walk into a party, a meeting or social gathering and it hits us. That burning embarrassment we all try to play off. As polite as people might be, and as cool as we pretend to be, everyone invited knows one thing is true: We are underdressed.

It’s no one’s fault. Decoding modern dress codes has become incredibly complicated. Our society is becoming more casual, but also more inconsistent. Modern manners are often dictated by an individual, and expectations vary greatly. For this reason, there is no reason why it is inappropriate to reach out to a host (or office) to inquire about their dress codes. Most people welcome the opportunity to clarify their expectations.

However, that is not always possible. For that reason, some general rules apply. Knowing the general expectations are half the battle. The most important thing is to be prepared and to anticipate any and all expectations. .


White tie versus black tie?

There is a comical moment in movies and television shows. An upper class gentleman, already clad in a tuxedo and bow tie, announces his house his plans to retire to his room to dress for dinner. A modern viewer might not understand how this dapper man could be underdressed; however, it was tradition to wear a white tie and tailcoat to dinner. In the recent past, high society had a strict dress code that differentiated dinner clothing with more casual day garb. White tie and tails were the most formal attire, whereas semi-formal attire included black ties and tuxedoes without tails. However, times have changes and so has the vernacular.


Semi Formal

What does Formal mean nowadays?

“Formal” usually means traditional tuxedo. Unless specified, tails are an option, but they are not expected. Cummerbunds, vests, bow ties, and long ties, are all considered appropriate. Formal tuxedo shoes should be worn.

Common formal functions include weddings (specifically members of the bridal party), proms, formal award dinners, and some special occasion parties. If an invitation states that the dress code is formal, assume you will need a tuxedo.


What does Semi-Formal mean nowadays?

More commonly expected, “semi-formal” attire no longer means a tuxedo without tails. A matching suit (in which the pants and jacket are the same textile), a tie, a collared shirt and formal shoes are required. A tuxedo shirt, bow tie and vest are not needed, but could be an option. However, a sports coat and pants would not be appropriate. It is usually best to stick to black, gray and brown suits when dressing for a semi-formal event.

Semi-formal events include weddings (guests), funerals, the opera, formal parties and evening cocktail receptions.

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What is Business Formal and Business Casual?

Business wear is entirely contingent on the company and formality of the workplace. It is essential that a little research be performed prior to a meeting or event. Do not be afraid to ask a contact about the office’s uniform and atmosphere.

“Business Formal” attire requires a matching suit and tie. Similar to the semi-formal dress code, a sports coat (with a different textile pant) would not be acceptable. However, a man in Business Formal attire could be more adventurous with his textiles and ties. Dark green, tweed and more colorful suits might be entirely appropriate. A vest or bow tie is not expected, but would not be too much either. Shoes should still remain clean and formal.

“Business Casual” can vary from company to company, but the best assumption is that a sports coat should be worn with a button down shirt. A full suit is not expected. Some companies will allow polos, and not require a tie, but if it is ambiguous, it is always best to assume the best option is a button down collared shirt and a tie.

Casual Fridays are becoming a more popular perk at many workplaces. If you are visiting an office, do not assume that a Casual Friday refers to you. As a guest, it is best to dress to the most formal code. If you are an employee, it is usually safe to assume that a tie is not expected on a Casual Friday. Never assume jeans, a polo or sneakers are appropriate. When in doubt, wear a button down and a pair of slacks.


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What is the difference between Smart Casual and Casual?

“Smart Casual” (or semi-casual) is suggested for parties or less formal restaurants. Jeans might be acceptable, if paired with a button down shirt (and potentially, a tie). However, it is best to assume a pair of slacks and a collared shirt is most appropriate. Smart casual l

Smart casual is usually the best choice for dates, the theatre and less formal parties, daytime parties, or events where children are invited.


“Casual” events are the ones that provide the least restrictions. Jeans and polos are appropriate. However, even at casual events, t-shirts, sweat shirts and sneakers should be avoided. Sports events and informal outdoor activities are exceptions. Remember that even a casual event is still an event. If someone specifically invited you, be courteous and dress with respect.


Still unsure?

If you find yourself invited somewhere and you are not sure about the dress code, it is always best to assume the more formal dress code. If you are unsure if you should wear a tie, WEAR A TIE. Think you can get away with not wearing a suit, do not even try it. While it might be more inconvenient, it will be be respected and appreciated if you show that you made an effort. Allow yourself to be a gentleman, and to respect the invitation you have received. If you do, you will be invited to many more in the future.