By Megan McDonald June 1, 2012

It’s happened to everyone: An invitation arrives with a clever yet cryptic dress code then a bit of unease sets in – however does this translate to a partygoer’s outfit? ‘Cause no one wants to be the person who arrived either under -or over-dressed.

I’m here 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 from the invitation itself. An Evite vs. 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.

If you’re able to pull a Duchess Kate and recycle something chic, then be sure to give it a once-over well in advance. Does it need an alteration or dry-cleaning?  How about the shoes? Would a pair of strappy sandals change it up from the last time it made an appearance? (And on a related note: if you’re going solo and opting for valet, be sure to get the car detailed.)

Finally, if you find yourself completely stumped, most stores have a stylist on hand to assist who is likely to be familiar with the event. There’s typically no charge for the service and oftentimes they track who’s wearing what to where so you don’t arrive to find someone else in your chic little number. Just call ahead for an appointment and be sure to bring the invite along.

Above all, be comfortable in whatever you’ll be wearing – there’s nothing stylish about a woman who spends the evening adjusting her skirt or tugging a strapless gown.

Want to know how to dress the man in your life?  Just click here for his sartorial etiquette.


White Tie

What it means:  This dress code is the ultimate in formality of proper evening attire, no deviation from the required full-dress and fashion de rigueur.

What to expect: An exclusive high-society evening steeped in tradition with ladies and gentleman.

How to dress: Time for your full-fledged, to-the-floor-formal evening gown, erring more on the modest side. Anything less than full-length gown is considered inappropriate. While choosing your dress, consider that long and flowy makes for a grand entrance. Oftentimes white is the required color. You’ll see everything from fur stoles to diamonds and pearls and updos, so get tressed up. Keep your makeup understated yet elegant. Confirm whether gloves (opera length or otherwise) are necessary – if so, they are only removed for the receiving line and at suppertime, then immediately donned thereafter.

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


Black Tie

What it means: Still quite formal, even thought it’s less so than White Tie, with more leeway in evening dress.

What to expect: An evening of dignified glamour, more poise than posh.

How to dress: Even though it seems an easy one, this event can have an enigmatic air for women’s dress code. We can pull off dressed-up separates, a feminine tux, knee-length dresses, even a gorgeous cashmere sweater with a satin ball gown skirt or a dress with a plunging back. If you’re familiar with the event, then play with a style from the Creative Black Tie dress code (see below), but don’t go as Fancy Nancy formal as the traditional White Tie. Again, take cues from the invite – if it lends itself to a lavish event, you’ll have to up the ante. When in doubt, take the invite to an in-store stylist.

Choose a polished hairstyle and makeup different from your everyday look – maybe even a red pouty lip. Flaunt your best jewels and unless you have a pair of great shoes already, here’s permission to invest in a chic pair of strappy sandals, or open-toe or satin pumps.

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


Creative Black Tie

What it means: Party attire redefined. Nothing stogy this night so if you are a style innovator, go with it and all your fashion ephemera.

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

How to dress:  First, pull out the good shoes, Sister. Think current trends, or don your most fabulous LBD or cocktail dress, but do it with style and flair. Another option is to give your outfit a nostalgic air with a vintage dress or flowy silhouette.

Hair and makeup can be more sleek and trendy too; how about a fabulous fishtail braid or double cat eye?

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




What it means:  Aside from the obvious sentimentality, the couple (ahem, probably the bride) 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 10 minutes early – I don’t have to tell you how embarrassing it would be 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 go with cocktail attire – nothing board room or dance floor. As for color, I’d avoid anything attention getting, like red for instance. The bride should be the only one in a standout, center-of-attention hue. For a beach wedding wear something light weight, no stockings, with easily removable sandals for navigating the sand.

*Side Note:  This is one party where you don’t want to turn heads, which leads me to the big question for female guests: Can you wear white to a wedding? Etiquette experts say it’s fine, but trust me on this one, it’s frowned upon. OK, fine, I’m not an expert, but hear me out for a second: We can all agree that aside from the love, a wedding is all about the bride. And on her big day white is designated as her color, unless the reception is themed black and white. If she cared enough to include you, then take my advice and save your plucky white outfit, no matter how badly you want to wear it, for another event that doesn’t include the sacred exchange of vows. It’s a small consideration and, even if you doubt me, the risk is just not worth it.




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

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

How to dress: Most hemlines are acceptable but long is not necessary, make it nice not formal. Avoiding a mini-mini-skirt here is suggested. Or up the ante on Cocktail attire (see below). If you want to play it safe then go with a black lace cocktail dress, knee-length or mid-calf, or an ultra polished paint suit or jumpsuit with some sheen – all are considered pitch-perfect.

AKA:  Resort formal, Theater Attendance, Uptown Elegance



What it means: Cocktail attire is a balance between casual and formal, which allows for personal style and sartorial drama.

What to expect: As the name suggests, drinks will be served, as well as hors d'oeuvres or canapés. It's a social gathering for mixing and mingling that usually has a defined beginning and end time in the early evening; avoid being the last to leave.

How to dress: Cut a stylish figure with a touch of glam. Here’s where a good little black dress comes in handy; just change up the accessories, like adding shoulder-sweeping earrings, and, you’re in a whole new outfit. Also, consider a chic pantsuit (not a biz suit, though), silk trousers, or jumpsuit--but ditch the long dress. For the top, try sequins, modern metallics or off-the-shoulder.  As for the hair – artfully tousled.

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: The setting will call for a stylish, pulled together look – a bit more city slick.

What to expect: A shindig with more emphasis on a fun than the above formalities

How to dress:  Experiment with contrasting fabrics--take a dressy piece, such as a bouclé jacket, with a charmeuse blouse and pair them with jeans and stilettos. Or team a pair of wide leg pants with a cotton tee or fitted top. An easy rule of thumb is to pair a dressy piece with a casual one.

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/summertime gathering

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

How to dress: Think light fabrics such as linen, silk or cotton. This is a good time to mix prints like a blue floral skirt with a blue striped top. The key is to be sure the dominant colors match. Or accessorize a day dress, which is a new favorite style for designers these days. Also, a garden party is the perfect opportunity to try your hand at the color-blocking trend. A hat is always a great way to protect you from the sun, and it adds a bit of character. Also consider flat sandals for the terrain, or if you want some height, do a wedge heel so your stilettos won’t sink.



Business Attire   

What it means: As the obvious is stated in the dress code, it’s all business. And  it’s your chance to present yourself as professional and highly capable in your field. Go ahead, project how powerfully chic you are.

What to expect:  Likely an event with networking opportunities, go with your best Manolo Blahniks forward. This is the last place you want to let your hair down--be on your best behavior and, seriously, stick with a two-drink maximum. Also, if you find yourself among the last stragglers, you’ve stayed too long.

How to dress:  Keep it crisp but feel free to give it your signature touch, whether a collage of vintage shoulder pins, Alexander McQueen scarf or a color blocking look. But you want to be approachable, so save the overtly sexy bandage dress for date night and the jeans for Casual Friday.

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





What it means:  You can go for comfort and almost anything goes, but remember that casual doesn’t mean sloppy.

What to expect:  A protocol-free shindig, but be respectful of the host and keep your look tidy.

How to dress:  Have fun with your fave jeans, leggings, maxi dress or wrap dress. If it’s day, go for comfort with sandals or ballet flats. Night: Amp it up with a pair of heels. 

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 – be playful.

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

How to dress:  Add some flamboyant flair with a seasonal color to suit the mood of the party. Here you can show some skin: little shoulder or alotta leg - just pick one or the other. If it’s the end of the year, December/New Year’s eve outfits always lend themselves to something with a bit of sparkle or metallic.

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


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

And for even more ways to get Sarasota Magazine, become a fan on Facebook or follow @SarasotaMagazin on Twitter!

Filed under
Show Comments