What Every Type of Dress Code Really Means 

Snake Chain Jewelry at The Louvre Museum

Styled by Paulina Castro


Are you ready? Hold onto your hat... or black tie... whatever the occasion may be! Here's our simple breakdown of different dress codes and what they mean. Finally, your go-to guide for how to dress at different events, from zoom meetings to weddings and everything in between.

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CASUAL

The invitation says “dress code: casual.” So, you’re supposed to, what—wear clothes?

Translation:
Despite popular belief, casual does not mean come as you are. Casual basically means “whatever you’d like—as long as it’s event appropriate.” 

What to wear:
You can wear anything that is in good condition. This includes jeans, sweaters, t-shirts, sneakers and much more. Flip-flops, sweats or workout clothing, revealing clothes, dirty clothes, heavily torn or ripped pieces, and graphic shirts with offensive or controversial messages on them are typically excluded, however.


When to wear: MUSIC FESTIVALS, OUTDOOR BARBECUES, PICNICS, MOVIE THEATERS, AIRPLANES, ZOOM WEBINARS, CREATIVE AND INFORMAL NETWORKING EVENTS, ETC.

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SMART CASUAL

The “smart casual” dress code is among the most ambiguous around. So if the term is confusing or simply new to you, you’re not alone.

Translation:
A mixture between smart and laid-back style. Smart casual is another way of saying no jeans and T-Shirts.

What to wear:
Customize your smart casual to the occasion. Choose between well-cut pants, a longer length skirt, structured shorts or smart jeans to wear as bottoms. On top, a classic white button-up for summer or a fashionable sweater for winter are a reliable go-to . 

When deciding to wear a dress, tread carefully. Select casual but dressy dresses. Opt for a simple style, such as a shirt or wrap design, in a neutral color scheme. Avoid informal footwear and stick to heels.

Pay attention to the details. Select jewelry that will easily transition your outfit from day to-night.

When to wear:
OFFICE PARTIES, HAPPY HOURS, BROADWAY THEATRE, BUSINESS LUNCHEONS, DINNERS, SKATING RING, MUSEUM TRIPS,  STAND-UP COMEDY EVENTS, ZOOM WEBINARS, OFFICE PARTIES, ZOOM MEETINGS, ONLINE MEETUPS, RETIREMENT PARTIES, ETC.

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DRESSY CASUAL

Translation:
Dressy casual wear means that you don't have to look like you're going to work, but that completely laid-back style isn't appropriate for the occasion.

What to wear:
Try blouses made of nice fabric or with interesting details, or a collared shirt or button-up—either short sleeves or long sleeves are perfect. Wear a blazer over your top of choice for added dressiness.  Dressy casual wear means avoiding cotton T-shirts or anything with large printed graphics or slogans.

Non-denim pants like chinos, silk pants or dress pants are a great choice for a dressy casual look. If you want to wear jeans, opt for slim-fitting dark or black jeans, not distressed denim with shredded seams and ripped holes. In terms of skirts, flowy skirts or pencil skirts work, but avoid pencil skirts that look too stiff.

Complement outfits with low-to-mid heels, ballet flats, loafers, etc.

Select one or two delicate accessories to look polished but not overdone. Simple earrings, delicate necklaces, bracelets, etc.


When to wear:
CHURCH, DINNER, SEMINAR, STAND-UP COMEDY EVENTS, WORKPLACE, BROADWAY THEATRE, ONLINE MEETUPS, SPEED DATE OR AN INVITE RECEIVED VIA PHONE OR E-MAIL.

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COUNTRY CLUB CASUAL

Translation:
This event is fancy – country-club fancy.

What to wear:
Select an open-necked or polo shirt. You can also opt for dresses and skirts with modest accessories. While flat shoes and low heels are traditionally preferred, tasteful sandals and espadrilles can also be worn. 

Stick to simple, modern jewelry. 

Country club attire also includes golf and tennis gear.

When to wear:
DRIVING RANGE, GOLF COURSE, GOLF CLUB, GOLF TOURNAMENTS, RESORT, CRUISE LINES, TENNIS CLASSES, RACQUET CLUB, COUNTRY CLUB, ETC.

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BUSINESS CASUAL

Translation:
Business casual wardrobe is typically defined as a professional, yet somewhat relaxed style.

What to wear:
It’s best for women to wear a suit as close to male colleagues as possible , blouse or crisp shirt , stockings , and closed -toe shoe with a low to medium heel. Stockings (nylons) are not necessarily expected anymore. 

Business casual outfits include polished looks such as jackets with high-quality dress shirts and slack . Women could wear a knee length dress with cardigan. Another excellent business casual outfit choice would be tailored trousers paired with a turtleneck and jacket.

For a business casual wardrobe, err on the side of streamlined, heeding Coco Chanel’s advice to take off one accessory before leaving the house.

Less is more when accessorizing. Pick out conservative and small earrings. Avoid necklaces that dangle between cleavage and loud bracelets that thudd. Try a classic, round pendant necklace or a single pearl necklace.

When to wear:
COMPANY PARTY, DAILY WORK ATTIRE, ZOOM MEETINGS, WORKPLACE, BUSINESS LUNCH MEETINGS, ETC.

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LOUNGE

Translation:
Aim for a chic yet relaxed aesthetic.

What to wear:
Wear a dress that would be appropriate for brunch or afternoon tea. It should fall to or slightly above the knee and not be too sparkly or low-cut. Incorporate a jacket or shawl to cover the arms.

When to wear:
DAYTIME ENGAGEMENT PARTIES, BUSINESS BREAKFASTS, AFTERNOON TEA, MOVIE THEATERS, ETC.

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FESTIVE

Translation:
Something smart and special, and it may be a little more opulent than your usual style.

What to wear:
Festive attire is similar to a cocktail party ensemble, but with a holiday bent—say a sparkly sequin dress or a red satin skirt.

Compliment your holiday ensemble with colorful, bold jewelry and sparkly details. Now is the time to have fun with your look!

When to wear:
HOLIDAY PARTIES, COCKTAIL SOIREES, DINNER CELEBRATIONS, ETC.

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COCKTAIL ATTIRE

Other expressions: semi-formal or black-tie optional.

Translation: 
This is an elegant social party.  

What to wear:
Whenever you are in doubt about this dress code, channel Daisy Buchanan Bluebells -Great-Gatsby energy through your wardrobe.  Channel this beautiful 1920s inspired style for clothing ideas such as a short dress with some frill, sparkle, beads or floating chiffon.

The classic little black dress also makes for great cocktail attire and is the easiest way to show your personality by accessorizing to suit your mood.

With cocktail attire, a key element is jewelry. Here is where you need to keep things simple and not overdo it. For example, you can wear long statement earrings paired with a matching bangle or you can wear a statement necklace with understated earrings instead.

When to wear:
ADULT BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS, EVENING SOCIAL EVENTS, REUNIONS, INDOOR GALA, OPERA, ETC.

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WHITE TIE & TAILS

Other expressionsfull dress , tailcoat , very formal , ultra formal , evening formal , cravatta bianca , cravate blanche, etc.

Translation:
Dress your best. White tie dress means picking the most formal ball attire obtainable a.k.a. an evening gown with gloves (think: White House state dinners). 

What to wear:
A white tie & tails event calls for formal ball attire including a suitable ball gown, which reaches the ankles or the floor.  Ball gown length lengths above the ankle are inappropriate . Depending on the celebration, ball gowns with deep décolletage and without sleeves are lovely choices . A stole is usually worn with dresses that leave the shoulders uncovered .

Usually , an intense color rather than warm tones is a good choice , such as turquoise , royal blue or violet. Pair this with lush fabrics such as silk , satin , brocade , silky velvet , lace , embroidery , ruffles and flounces. 

White tie dress means accessorizing with opera length gloves, glamorous jewels and up-do hairstyles. Proper styling includes wearing jewelry such as rings and bracelets under and not over your opera gloves .

When to wear:
CHARITY FUNDRAISERS, OPENING NIGHT OF THE OPERA, GOVERNMENT CEREMONIES, BALLS, GALAS, WEDDINGS, THE MET BALL, ROYAL EVENTS, ETC.

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BLACK TIE

Translation:
Dress your best. A Black tie event calls for black tie attire, which is among the most fancy of all dress codes.  You will likely be surrounded by a crowd full of tuxedos and floor-length gowns. 

What to wear:
Black tie attire means wearing a floor-length ball gown. If you choose to wear something that doesn't go all the way to the floor, a suitable length is something a little below the knee. A very dressy cocktail dress is also acceptable depending on the venue of the black tie event.

The nicer the event, the better the excuse to rock some of your finer pieces of jewelry and accessories. This is the perfect opportunity to wear that statement necklace or cocktail ring.

When to wear:
CHARITY FUNDRAISERS, OPERA, POLITICAL DINNER PARTIES, WEDDINGS, ETC.

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CREATIVE BLACK TIE

Translation: 
This is an elegant but fun affair.

What to wear:
The creative look means straying from the traditional black dress attire with formal hair and selecting something more trendy. Embellish your outfit with the latest trends such as feathers, sequins, sheer fabrics and capes. Show off your personality with every detail.

When to wear:
GALAS, SILENT AUCTIONS, WEDDINGS & FORMAL DINNERS THAT HAVE A PLAYFUL ATMOSPHERE

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WARM WEATHER BLACK TIE

Translation: A warm-weather take on black tie attire should retain the elegance of a classic evening gown, but make use of lighter fabrics and colors and lighter, more relaxed silhouettes.

What to wear:
Opt for a light, sleeveless gown made from an airy fabric like silk chiffon or something that drapes well, such as silk jersey. Look for summer-appropriate pastels like coral and lavender or bright, festive colors like turquoise or poppy. Accessorize with chandelier earrings or a statement necklace and open-toed heels.

Embellish knee-length or mid length dresses with a statement necklace or cuff and a pair of embellished heels.

Clothing ideas for warm weather black tie include separates in luxe fabrics with dressy details, to make them more elegant than everyday wear.

When to wear:
OUTDOOR EVENTS SUCH AS CRUISE LINE OR COUNTRY CLUB DINNERS, WEDDINGS, GALAS, ETC.

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BLACK TIE OPTIONAL

Translation:
Formal and glamorous.

What to wear:
For a safe dose of glamour, opt for a long length evening dress , a ritzy cocktail dress or a dressy pantsuit. A cocktail-length dress is perfectly fine as long as isn’t too colorful or flashy.

No matter what length dress you pick you will want to make sure your accessories are equally as formal and eye-catching. 

When to wear:
GALAS, SILENT AUCTIONS, WEDDINGS, FORMAL DINNERS, ETC.


Dress codes are difficult to decipher at times (especially when some of them mean the opposite of what you can deduce from looking up the words in Webster's Dictionary). We encourage you to bookmark this page, pin this article to Pinterest or share via other social media channels for future, easy to reach for reference.