Dress Codes usually only apply, in this day and age, to weddings and other big events. Chances are, most of you will only have to deal with dress codes for weddings, but there is always the possibility that you will have to attend some kind of work function with a dress code. So, here is a handy guide.
For the dress codes I have given below, I have given a number of names for the same thing. In this day and age, I would suggest referring to the first name of each code when writing invitations.
White Tie/Morning Dress/Formal
White Tie is the highest level of formality in dress codes, and to be honest, it rarely comes up. I have been to one White Tie event in my life, and that was my Debutante Ball. Even then, White Tie was only required for the Debutantes and their partners. White Tie is usually worn at State Dinners.
White Tie exists in the evenings (5pm or later), during the daytime the equivilent dress code is Morning Dress.
Men: White Tie is a black tailcoat and trousers, plain white stiff-fronted shirt with winged collar, white bowtie, white waistcoat. Fortunately, anyone reading this blog who has to attend a white tie or morning dress event can simply go to a formal hire place and request white tie.
Morning Dress is more common at weddings and some funerals, and consists of a tailcoat and trousers, usually black, but grey is appropriate as well, a high-collared shirt, a cravat (colour may vary), a waistcoat (again, colour may vary, but should be black for funerals) and dress shoes. Top hats and canes are appropriate accessories for both dress codes.
Women: White Tie and Morning Dress both require a ball gown. A ball gown is not the same as an evening gown, as one of the main components of the ball gown is a very full skirt supported by tulle or hooped petticoats. At State dinners, tiaras may be appropriate.
If planning a wedding, I believe it is poor form to choose White Tie or Morning Dress for anyone other than the bridal party.
Black Tie//Evening Formal/Semi Formal
Black Tie is slightly less strict than White Tie. It is still used mostly in the evenings. If you are planning an event, I would hesitate to use the term "semi-formal" as for many people in this day and age, it implies a fairly informal mode of dress.
Men: Dinner suit (black, possibly with a white jacket), bow tie, cravat or necktie, white shirt, a waistcoat or cummerbund (cummerbunds are quite out of fashion at present), and dress shoes. Personally, I love the white dinner jacket look, but you have to be fairly dashing to carry it off without looking like a teenaged boy dressing up like James Bond.
Women: An evening gown. Unlike the huge skirts on a ball gown, an evening gown is much slimmer. It should be ankle length, however. Fabrics such as velvet, satin and chiffon are appropriate, cotton is not.
Cocktail attire and Afternoon Formal can essentially be the same thing, but there can be some differences, mostly for women. When in doubt of the dress code, cocktail is your best option, particularly for a weddding.
Men: Dinner suit and tie, dress shoes. Similar to Black Tie, but for afternoon formal, you can get away with a sports jacket and tie, if they're nice. The two examples I've given demonstrate the two ends of cocktail and afternoon formal: a very sharp suit, and a more casual one. For an afternoon summer wedding, you can get away without a tie, but only if your suit/shirt/jacket is quite flash.
Women: The important component of cocktail dress is the length of the dress. The longest cocktail dresses come to mid-calf, and the shortest should be about three quarters of the way down the thigh. Mid-thigh length dresses are not really appropriate for weddings, or work-related parties, but might be fine for an intimate cocktail evening with friends. For an evening event, darker colours and richer fabrics are appropriate.
For a daytime wedding that asks for cocktail attire, a dress that could be worn to the races is usually appropriate, and you can choose lighter, brighter colours.. Cocktail and Afternoon Formal also allow for hats and fascinators to be worn. While it is certainly not necessary to wear a hat or fascinator to a wedding these days, it is lots of fun, and I believe it should be encouraged. A nice skirt or trousers and blouse can also be appropriate for a wedding.
General Dress Code Rules
- Men should always wear dress shoes to a wedding. Boots are never appropriate at a wedding where the dress code is any of the ones mentioned here.
- Women should avoid wearing only white or ivory to a wedding where they are not the bride. Tiaras are also inappropriate for wedding guests.
- For funerals, black is not necessarily required anymore. However, a suit for men, in grey, black or navy is appropriate, and women should wear sombre colours. Of course, some funerals will specify bright colours at the wish of the deceased, but if you are unsure, go for dark colours. Short skirts and revealing hems are not appropriate at funerals, either.
- When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Dressing up is always more appropriate than dressing down, and it's easier to pass it off as a personal quirk, than disregard for the people organising the event.
- You can get away with informality at a daytime event much more than at a nighttime one.
- Particularly for men, it is definitely worth it to invest in a dinner suit and an afternoon suit. Get a cut that suits you, get it altered (particularly around the shoulders) until it fits properly. A good afternoon suit can be work to job interviews as well as cocktail-attire functions, and a decent dinner suit will set you up for the rest. You can always hire your formalwear, but it never fits properly, and a man in an ill-fitting suit always looks uncomfortable and out of place. Ties, shirts, and waistcoats are the key to dressing up a suit and changing your look from one event to another.