Deciphering The Invitation Dress Code

Deciphering The Invitation Dress Code

You received an invitation in the mail for a fall dinner party. As you RSVP, you notice there is a dress code listed on the bottom of the card. The problem is, you have no idea what “semi-formal” or “cocktail attire” actually means. Not to worry! Here is a quick guide to help you decipher the most common dress codes so that you can avoid showing up under- or over-dressed.

I’ve done the research and found dresses that are appropriate for all of the types of dress codes, and you’ll notice that occasionally dresses overlap and go into multiple dress codes. That is because often the formality of the dress code is dependent on the host. The one place that doesn’t apply is white-tie attire. You don’t really have any wiggle room on what is appropriate there. Don’t forget that you can always shop previous outfits by heading here.

Adding Jewels

All of the jewelry for tonight’s looks is from one of my favorite online vintage retailers, 1st Dibs. If you’re not familiar with them, they source everything from fine jewelry to home decor and furniture from top luxury shops around the world. It’s a great place to look for something unique. I think a formal occasion is a wonderful time to find a special piece that you’ll keep for a lifetime. As a reminder, if you are investing in fine jewelry it is a good idea to get it insured. Here is a great article that gives you more information on that.

Shoes Wisely

One last thought before you read the guide: choose your shoes wisely. While a tall heel will look fabulous, you might not be able to make it all night if you’ll be standing. I’ve found a ton of shoe options from flats to stilettos so you can select what works best for you.

White-Tie Dress Code

State dinners and the most formal affairs

The white-tie dress code was first seen in the early days of the Victorian-era in England around 1840. At the time, the black-and-white color scheme was a much more minimalist style compared to the ruffles and frills of the customary attire. By the Gilded Age, this style was seen as the ultimate dress code for those in the upper sectors of society. As the 20th century progressed, this dress code declined and is now typically reserved only for state dinners, the most elegant of balls and other similarly formal occasions.  

As such, there are a few key things to keep in mind when adhering to a white-tie dress code. First and foremost, white-tie attire is meant to be refined, polished and more on the conservative side. Women should wear a long gown or evening dress. Either wear a gown that touches the floor or one that covers your ankles.  Second, avoid any accessories that are overly casual or too extravagant. Since this event is most typically a state dinner, it’s best to wear a sophisticated look that isn’t flashy. Third, long white gloves are always a good idea for these occasions though they are optional. 

 For men, the G.Q. Style Guide states that the look comprises a black tailcoat and trousers with a white shirt, vest (generally of piqué cotton), and bow tie. The white shirt has a wing collar, and, as the name implies, the jacket has tails. “Waist-length in front and knee-length in back, it falls away more sharply than a morning coat, is double-breasted, and is worn at night with white tie,”. Short gloves are optional and a real bow tie is a must as a “pre-tied” version is seen as unacceptable.

Black-Tie Attire

Similar To White-Tie Without a few restrictions

The black-tie dress code got it’s popularity as the more formal white-tie attire went out of style. This was in major part due to the industrialization of the fashion world. Designers were able to produce a more varied line of tuxedos and suits, making the standard white-tie attire more obsolete. Customarily, this dress code requires men to wear a tuxedo, and not a suit- though tails are not a requirement.

For women, this dress code is really dependent on the host. In some cases a dramatic cocktail dress is actually appropriate, but I’d err on the safe side and continue with a long dress. Look for evening appropriate fabrics such as velvet, chiffon, silk or lace and know that color is perfectly acceptable. 

A good way to gauge how formal the event is can be found in the invitation itself. The more attention to detail found in creating the invitation seems to be the indicator of how serious the host is about formality. Thicker papers, pressed lettering, and even the types of stamps used are signs of formality. Of course, you can always call your host to find out exactly what they mean! Not every black-tie event is the same, so different “rules” apply.

Black-Tie Optional

Aka "formal" attire

When you read black-tie optional you might instantly worry.  What does that even mean? Well, for starters don’t panic! This dress code option is a gracious way for a host to let people not feel pressured into wearing a tuxedo or having to go out and purchase a floor length dress. Your restrictions are far fewer giving you plenty of options on what to wear. Whenever I see this dress code, I think of it as being more playful than a strictly black-tie requirement. Both full length dresses and cocktail dresses are acceptable, as well as a pant suit for women. Traditionally, rules around pantsuits for women have been restrictive, but I hope that “rule” is changed over time. I personally love when women wear tuxedos- it’s like the ultimate chic status. 

This is still a formal event, so avoid anything too casual. As with the black-tie dress code, I’d contact the host for help. Another tip for black-tie optional weddings is to contact a bridesmaid to find out what their dresses are. If I know they’ll be wearing a long dress, I do likewise. I also like to find out what color they are wearing to avoid coordinating with the wedding party. Since we are on the topic of weddings: white and red are usually not acceptable to wear. White and ivory as customarily reserved for the bride, while red is seen as a color that will take away from the couple as it is so visually bold. I have noticed that it’s becoming more acceptable to wear black to evening weddings, and even some brides with require a dress code color theme. I went to one a few years back where guests were asked to wear ivory. Visually it was stunning in all the pictures!

Men can absolutely wear a tuxedo, but a suit is also acceptable. Pair this with dress shoes and a tie or bowtie for a polished look.

The Cocktail Code*

*LBD enters the chat

If you are ever in a situation where you don’t know what to wear to an event with a cocktail dress code, your best bet will always be the little black dress (LBD). This is a fantastic option that is classic and will never go out of style. If you are wanting to be a bit more adventurous, this is one of the best dress codes to be playful with color. Typically cocktail dresses are knee length, but besides that you can really wear what you feel best in. This is another event where tuxedo pants for women are acceptable. As with any invitation only event, go for a clutch or a smaller bag. You don’t want to get stuck carrying a large bag, especially if it is a place that you can’t leave your bag unattended. I didn’t say it in the more formal dress codes because I felt it went without saying but: denim is a no-go. So are sneakers. Dressing according to the requested dress code is actually a sign of respect for your host and should thoughtfully be considered when selecting your outfit. Similarly, I like to select one bold feature. So if I am going with a bold design, my color will be more subtle and vice versa. I think this helps to balance it all out.

Full on tuxedos are also a no-go for men in this dress code, but suits are a must. You can skip the ties and bowties if you really hate them, but make sure the shirt is crisp and starched to look polished and put together. Same shoe rules apply to men though I know it is becoming more popular to wear a fashion or dress sneaker. If you do this, make sure they are clean and pristinely cared for. 

Semi-Formal Kind Of Life

Somewhere between the office and the opera

The description above is no help, I apologize! But this dress code really is a bit more formal than the traditional office attire but less formal than cocktail attire. You can wear any length of dress, but pay attention to the details. Your fabrics shouldn’t be overly flashy and the design of the dress is best seen in simplicity. You’ll typically see this for day to early afternoon weddings, holiday parties (though you might be going with the “festive” code below for that!), and fine dining restaurants. I’d say avoid casual fabrics such as denim and linen and opt for something that is a bit more polished. Dressy fashion jewelry and embellishments are all appropriate, but try not to overdo it.

Men can easily get away without wearing a full suit and go for suit pants and a coordinating blazer. Again, ties are optional but dress shoes are recommended. As always, try to match your belt to your dress shoes for a cohesive look. 

Casual Attire

Think Sundress+

This dress code name is deceptive, because denim still isn’t exactly appropriate unless otherwise stated by the host. Again, your host knows best on how to direct you if you have questions, but these guidelines should help. As said above, I think of this dress code as “sun dress+”. Take a basic cotton sun dress and give it a little boost. Your materials play a key factor in this.Linen can now be added, though probably won’t be worn in the fall or winter. Since this event is more than likely outdoors, keep your footwear in mind. Wedges or a low wide heel are always a great option outside of flats.

Suits are no appropriate for men to wear at a casual event, but dress pants are. If denim is acceptable by the host, go with a darker pair as they look more polished and professional, and keep the same rules on footwear: they need to be clean and well taken care of. I’d suggest a shoe that isn’t highly polished, or a sneaker that falls in the fashion or style category.

Fabulously Festive

HOliday Parties

Now is the best time to add in all the sparkle! It seems that anytime I see this on an invitation it is around a holiday. Not just Christmas, but that one is probably done the most with “festive” attire. Since this is a more modern form of dress code, there are far fewer rules that apply and it really is a great opportunity to be playful with your style. Think sequins, embellishments, metallics and more. As mentioned on the board below, it’s best to story your sequined items folded in a dust bag. The weight of the sequins or embellishments can put too much stress on the fabric and cause it to stretch. This dress code is a wonderful time to utilize something like Rent The Runway. I don’t usually find times to wear a really festive dress more than once or twice, so I typically will rent mine. Here is a link to see what I’m talking about!

Day Of Makeup

My go to Makeup for lasting power

I’ve mentioned this on Instagram, but I am a product junkie. Even though I don’t wear a lot of makeup, I love to buy it and test it out. Because when I do  need it, I want it to look flawless and be the best. Below are my tried and true options, plus a newer to me under eye cream that has just blown me away. It blurs the lines around my eyes and gives me a brighter look.

As with any makeup routine, the best place to start is with a good base. Make sure you are prepping your skin with plenty of moisturizer and a good primer. I’ve been loving the YSL primer balm (here) because it always gives my skin a dewy start. You can actually layer it over your foundation as well. If I’m going to be at the event for a long time, I’ll use this powder (here) to set everything. Just make sure you use it lightly under your eyes. I find that too much powder can make your skin look dry and wrinkled, even if you don’t really have any! I didn’t put it on the board, but I always have a tube of the Tarte Maracuja Lip Balm (here) in my bag. If you need recommendations for skin care prep or have a specific need with makeup message me! I’m happy to help you find something that works well for you. 

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