By Megan McDonald May 24, 2012

Love that you received the invite but stumped on what to wear to pull off the clever yet cryptic dress code? No one wants to be the person who arrived either under- or over-dressed.

I want to help. So, below you’ll find a few guidelines from proper to flexible dress etiquette. Do keep in mind with each there are factors that will influence your choices, such as season, location, time of the party and weather. For instance, velvet in summer isn’t necessarily a fashion no-no, but….

Also, be sure to take cues in the invitation itself. An Evite v. embossed, hand-pressed stationery provides an explicit clue in deciphering the host’s dress code. Keeping in mind that “optional” or “preferred” means you can dress slightly less formal, but not casual.

And guys, just one last bit of friendly advice for your overall look: Pull out that suit/tux when the invite arrives. Does it need an alteration or dry-cleaning?  And how about the shoes–time for a polish or possibly a new pair?  Have your black socks turned grey?  OK, you get the point--have a look in advance, not the day of.

But, two last checklist items–if you’re donning a tux, leave your sports watch at home, and, off the fashion subject, did you get the car detailed? 

By the way, if you need a step-by-step on how to tie a skinny, wide knot or bow tie, Geoffrey Michel of The Met will show you how-to in a couple short videos in my Ties + Trends for Men blog.

Feel free to bookmark this page for future reference. And if you find you need further insight, most stores have a stylist on hand to assist, with no charge for the service. Just call ahead for an appointment and be sure to bring the invite along.

And, stay tuned, next week same topic with a feminine spin! 


White Tie

What it means: This dress code is the ultimate in formality of proper evening attire; no deviation from the required full-dress. You may have to inquire if a top hat and gloves are a prerequisite.

What to expect: An impeccable and elegantly exclusive evening steeped in tradition.

How to dress: Black tailcoat (however, midnight blue is acceptable), white vest, starched wing-collared shirt and bowtie (white, of course), and trousers with a side stripe finished with black patent shoes. Just a friendly word of warning, gentlemen–for this event you’ll need to get comfortable in your jacket, as it will need to stay on for the entire evening.

AKA: Formal Ball, State Dinner, White Tie and Tails


Black Tie

What it means: Less formal attire than White Tie, but typically the host expects a tuxedo or evening jacket to be worn all evening (not hung on your chair).

What to expect: An important social event of dignified glamour in an upscale venue

How to dress: Some experts say a black suit is an acceptable substitution; however, before choosing this option do a little research to be sure you won’t be out of place. When in doubt, go with the tux. If you choose a bow tie over a tux tie, then tie your own–here’s a quick vid on how to do so: How to Tie a Bow Tie. Additional options are a vest or cummerbund, both of which are on trend. Finishing touch: The shoes–patent leather or a pair of tux slippers.

AKA: Formal Attire, Black Tie and Long Dresses, Black Tie Required, Black Tie Only, Uncreative Black Tie


Creative Black Tie

What it means: Formal party attire redefined. According to Emily Post’s Etiquette, it’s a “tuxedo combined with trendy or whimsical items.” Translation: It’s your opportunity to bend the rules a bit, show your personality.

What to expect: A stylish evening with less focus on formality and more on fun.

How to dress: Go for a modern tux, anything from purple velvet to sharkskin to houndstooth. Add a hip black shirt, no tie or dark suit, and think colored tie or bow tie--even a pair of patterned socks like a Paul Smith or Robert Graham pair (just not all together in one look)!  And remember: good, polished shoes.

AKA: Alternate Black Tie, Black Tie Optional, Bohemian Black Tie, Texas Tuxedo, Gala Garb



What it means: Aside from the obvious sentimentality, the couple has labored over details and want to share their big day with you, so it’s appropriate to honor their chosen dress code.

What to expect: Arrive at least ten minutes early – I don’t have to tell you how embarrassing it would be for you to be taking your seat while the bride is walking down the aisle. In fact, here’s a public service announcement: If you are tardy, find a place to wait until she’s down the aisle (and the guests have turned from looking in your direction!)

How to dress: The invitation or wedding website will typically make note of specific attire. If not, then a dark suit with a white shirt and conservative tie is the go-to but a suit and tie is the minimum required dress unless otherwise specified. If it’s a beach wedding – go for lighter weight and colored fabrics.



What it means: Often misinterpreted as casual, this is perhaps the most confusing of the dress code list. It’s common to make the mistake of being under dressed, much to the chagrin of the attendee.

What to expect: A semi-formal event, which is still based in some semblance of formal protocol.

How to dress: No tux required. In fact, you’d find yourself overdressed if you wear one. Choose a nice suit and tie -- for day, go with a lighter color, for nighttime choose a darker suit. Also, a vest is an option for evening, but not necessary. No jeans or sport coats, fella.

AKA: Resort formal, Theater Attendance, Uptown Elegance



What it means: Cocktail attire is a balance, above Smart Casual and below Black Tie, which allows for you to highlight your personal style.


What to expect: As the name suggests, drinks will be served, as well as hors d'oeuvres or canapés. A social gathering for mixing and mingling that usually suggests a designated beginning and end time in the early evening.

How to dress: The rule here is simple – go for a dark suit, pinstripe or fitted; button down shirt, top button undone with or without a tie. Toss in a pocket square or add flair in your socks and shoes. 

AKA: Suit + Tie Requested, Jacket Required, Receptions, Mocktail Party, Social Hour, Mixer, Upscale Casual, Downtown Chic, Dress to Kill, Simply Fabulous


Smart Casual

What it means: Think neat, classic look as opposed to trendy.

What to expect: The setting will call for a smart, stylish and a respectable look.

How to dress:  Button-down shirt and neatly pressed pants, ties optional. Also acceptable are light sweaters and sport coats in lightweight fabrics like linen. Kick it up with a pair of stylish brogues. Uhmmm and no sneakers.

AKA: Business Casual, Semi-Casual, Country Club Chic, Country Club Casual, Dressy Casual, Informally Fabulous, Casual Chic


Garden Party

What it means: Typically a spring/summer time gathering

What to expect: You’ll find yourself outdoors for the event, so plan accordingly.

How to dress: Consider a seersucker suit with a pair of snazzy bucks. White or beige linen or cotton,  or if you have the chops, madras print slacks and shorts. The look you’re going for is crisp, clean and cool. If you prefer darker colors, consider chocolate brown and navy blue with a pair of tri-colored boat shoes.  You can manage the sun with either a dapper fedora or sunglasses, but leave the sporty sunnies at home. For instance, the ones you’d wear for a jog or on the fishing boat. By the way, you can always leave a tie in the car, just in case the event calls for it when you get there.


Business Attire

What it means:  Unless you work in a techie environment forget the flip-flops and hoodie. At this event you’ll want to send the message that you are professional and highly capable in your field.

What to expect: An event that requires you to be on your best behavior – avoid the Karaoke machine and more than two drinks. (No, seriously.) Also, if you find yourself among the last stragglers, you’ve stayed too long, Big Guy.

How to dress: Collared shirt, your particular brand of suiting, at the minimum, and probably a tie. It’s acceptable to show your personality with other trend elements to layer in like a patterned shirt and tie combos; tie bar; handsome pocket scarf and smart socks.

AKA: Town Dress, Urban Chic, City Dress, Business Casual, Trade Show Chic



What it means: Here’s where laid-back comes in--almost anything goes, but remember that casual doesn’t mean sloppy.

What to expect: A protocol-free shindig, but keep your look tidy out of respect for the host.

How to dress:  Jeans are appropriate, just leave the acid-wash + distressed pairs at home along with the rumpled shirts and gym clothes. Depending on the occasion you may be able to go with cargo or Bermuda shorts or a relaxed suit. Stylish sneakers, sandals or loafers work here.

AKA: Casual Friday, Dressed Down, Come As You Are, Smart Attire, Day Clothes, Casual Threads


Festive Attire

What it means: Strike a balance between smart casual and cocktail attire for this party.

What to expect: The host has given you a head’s up that you’re in for a good time!

How to dress:  Add some holiday flair to your outfit with the seasonal color to suit the mood of the party.

AKA: Holiday Threads, Holiday Chic, Festive Holiday Attire, Glitterati Gear

Stay tuned for part two--For Her--next week!

For even more fashion news and notes, follow Heather on Twitter @heatherDUNHILL.

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