Have you been invited to the event of the year but don’t know what to wear? Baffled by dress codes? Worried about underdressing? We’re here to answer your dressing up prayers with five essential tips for getting to grips with dress codes, and thrifty ways to save money on your dazzling outfit.
Why Do We Dress Up?
Dress codes have their roots in societal perceptions and norms and are as old as clothing itself. While many of our historical dress codes have fallen out of fashion – literally – some still prevail, including uniforms in the workplace or educational institutions, and evening wear dress codes.
When it comes to formal occasions or events such as weddings or red-carpet affairs, dress codes are a necessity for ensuring that each guest is, well, dressed for the occasion. It’s simply bad form to head to a white tie ball without wearing a ballgown or tailcoat and, if you’ve ever been unlucky enough to upstage the bride at a wedding, you’ll know just how important an explicit dress code can be.
Certain venues still operate dress codes too. The world’s most glamourous casinos, for example, have had strict dress codes for centuries. Although some rules have been relaxed here in the 21st century, nevertheless there’s still an expectation that you’ll look glamourous at the tables of the Casino de Monte Carlo!
1. What to Wear If…
Let’s tackle what each of the most common dress codes means:
Casual – this is the easiest of all dress codes to master because you don’t actually need to dress up. Think dress-down Fridays at the office – t-shirts, jeans and even trainers are acceptable.
Dressy Casual – between business and casual we have dressy casual. Again, the emphasis is on wearing fashion basics, but in a dressier style (dark denim jeans, snazzier t-shirts or tops).
Business Attire – If you work in a corporate environment, you’ll be used to business attire, even though there are many variations within this category in global workplaces. For business attire, you should dress as if you were client-facing, which means formal skirts for ladies and blazers for men. Definite no-no’s are jeans and sneakers.
Cocktail – if you’ve been invited to an event with a cocktail dress code you should be digging out your glad rags, stat! You don’t have to wear the most expensive or formal of clothes, but it helps if you play with luxurious textures like silk, satin or velvet. Formal shoes are a must, however.
Black Tie – This is where things get elegant. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a black-tie event opt for floor-length gowns or elevated cocktail dresses. For men, it simply has to be a classic tux.
White Tie – for the most formal of events, only white tie will do. This translates sartorially as ball gowns, white gloves and tailcoats.
2. Understanding “Black Tie Optional”
We’ve all been there and received an invitation where it says the style of dress is “optional”. But, when it comes to black-tie events, what does it really mean for the dress code to be optional? Well, it’s unlikely that the host would be happy with you rocking up in board shorts and flip flops, but there is some wiggle room available to you.
It’s better to err on the side of caution for black tie optional and choose a classic silhouette, such as a knee-length dress. You can go shorter, of course, just make sure that it’s truly red carpet ready. Men can get away with dark suits instead of a full tux.
3. Dos and Don’ts for White Tie
So, you’ve scored an invitation to the governor’s ball? Here’s a quick checklist of dos and don’ts for your attire:
- Ballgown or floor-length gown
- Long white gloves (optional, but encouraged)
- Tailcoat jacket
- Short dresses
- Mismatched accessories
4. Eeek! There’s No Dress Code on the Invitation!
This doesn’t mean you can schlep around in sweatpants and yesterday’s hoody. There are still etiquette rules to follow even if there’s no explicit dress code on the invitation.
The simplest thing to do is ask the host what they’re wearing or for a heads-up on the theme of the event. You can also tell from the style of the invitation; if it’s embossed on premium card stock or engraved, it’s likely to be a more formal event that requires a cocktail dress or black-tie gown.
Noting the time of the event can give you a clue too. Most evening events (after 5 pm) require more elegant outfits, while daytime functions are more casual so you can get away with looking more lowkey.
5. Thrifty Ways to Meet a Dress Code
Not everyone has the creative directors at Oscar de la Renta on speed dial, so what can you do if you’re low on funds but still have a dress code to stick to?
Well, firstly it’s all about shopping smart. Check out online retailers like ASOS for a wide selection of fashionable pieces that can easily be dressed up to suit cocktail and black-tie events. Vintage stores can be a good place to browse too, and don’t forget sites like The RealReal, which resell clothes from mispriced and luxury brands.
Secondly, if you’re going to a once in a lifetime event you don’t have to buy a complete outfit. On occasions like this, it’s perfectly acceptable to rent a ballgown or top hat and tails. Platforms like Rent the Runway and Armarium are well-stocked with designer pieces that you can rent for an affordable price.
You can also upgrade your existing wardrobe by investing in accessories. Sure, you’ll need to spend a little to get good quality jewelry or footwear, but if you stick with classic designs and dark or muted colors for shoes, they’re items that you’ll be able to wear time and time again.