Updated as of June 29, 2021

Party Dress Codes Decoded 101

Did you read my last post, Packing for a Summer Trip: Pro Travel Shoe Tips?  If so, you’ll remember I mentioned the two times people get most stressed about getting dressed are when it comes to travel and special events. Since we talked about travel the last go-round, let’s address party dress codes this time! 

Weddings are on my mind because I’m in the midst of packing for the wedding of my husband’s boarding school roommate this month. The nuptials are in Nantucket (and a first wedding for both the bride and the groom – at 51 and 49 respectively). I’ve never been to Nantucket (yay, destination weddings!) and am thrilled to celebrate with them (and get away with my man). But, I’m also a little overwhelmed thinking about the multiple festivities, each with very specific dress codes. If I’m feeling discombobulated by this, and I’m a professional dresser, well then, how does a regular jane or joe feel?

I’m Kind of Rusty

I fully admit I’m a little rusty in the wedding department.  This year marks my 25th wedding anniversary – big mazels to us! My husband and I always say that while birthdays are great, for us, anniversaries feel like a bigger accomplishment – because you know, there was some serious effort put into two separate people making a union work year after year. Needless to say, I’m hoping for something kind of sparkly to mark 25 years of making it work. And even if that doesn’t happen, I still feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

In addition to dropping this pretty big public hint to the hubs about the anniversary gift, the other reason I am bringing up the subject of weddings is that it’s been a hell of a long time since I was on the wedding circuit. Definitely a while since I was a bride. And even a bit since I was a guest. And I don’t think I’m alone. So many weddings were postponed due to Covid, and 2021 is making up for lost wedding time. The wedding business is off the rails! People are ready to gather, celebrate, and say I do!

How to Decipher The Party Dress Code Jargon

You know when you get an invitation in the mail for a party and then you quickly scan to the bottom to see what the dress code is, and then realize, UGH…I have nothing to wear? Or, just the opposite…you have plenty to wear, but aren’t sure what item in your wardrobe coincides with the dress code? Then you pick up the phone, and call, or text your BFF to find out what they’re wearing to the event, only to find out that she doesn’t have a clue either. Ha! Then you might be in need of Dress Code Decoded 101.

Even though I’ve personally been off of the whole black tie attire/wedding circuit for a while now, I’m always helping clients decode the dress code for their upcoming events. One of the perks of my job is living vicariously through my clients and planning all the outfit details for their affairs. That being said, the whole dress code thing can be uber confusing. Is formal attire the same as cocktail attire? What about black-tie? Then there’s black-tie optional – what’s the deal with that? And is white tie fancier than black tie? And where in the world does dressy casual (the ultimate oxymoron) fall in the dress code hierarchy?

I’m here to give you the deets on HOW TO DECODE THE DRESS CODE!

Here’s the quickie answer… The men set the tone…ardent feminists may not like this but it’s true.

In all dress code situations (even workplace dress codes), it’s the men’s attire that is setting the formality of dress. What the men are wearing sets the tone and the women can use that as their bellwether.

What Does The Invite Say?

Here’s a breakdown of the most common dress codes and what they REALLY mean.


Typically the most formal attire possible (like Royal Family or White House state dinner attire). It means formal floor-length evening gowns for the ladies. With no wiggle room for sartorial interpretation. Along with jewelry, heels, and a fancy clutch. For the gents, the guidelines are pretty strict too. A tuxedo with tails, formal white shirt, vest, and bow tie. As well as gloves – in white or gray, and formal footwear.

Black Tie

This generally means the event is in the evening. Men need to be in tuxedos, and the ladies will need a fancy-schmancy long gown or formal pantsuit. Probably with some sparkly jewelry and a clutch bag.

Black Tie Optional or Formal

This means a little less formal than Black Tie. It’s perfectly acceptable for a man to be in a black suit, and black shoes rather than having to be in a penguin suit. If your sidekick opts for that route, then standing next to him in a long gown might feel sorta awkward. Instead, opt for a formal dress that hits at the midi length or slightly above the knee.

Cocktail Attire

This dress code is very popular because it’s a step down from Black tie optional/formal and a step above semi-formal/dressy casual (see below). Women don’t usually wear full-length gowns. Tea-length, knee-length or mini dresses are appropriate. And Men should wear a suit and tie. Cocktail attire generally means you can have a little more fun with your outfits. An LBD (little black dress) is always perfect with some cool accessories. 

Semi-Formal or Dressy Casual

When the invitation says this it gives you flexibility. But also requires more interpretation. If the event is in the evening you can opt for darker colors. And for a daytime affair, lighter colors are more acceptable. Floor-length gowns would be out of place. Men should definitely wear a collared shirt and slacks. A sport coat would almost always be right. And a tie is optional. 

These are the most popular and widely used party dress codes. And following this guide should help you get dressed for any invite that comes your way!


Affiliate Links

Since the purpose of this blog is to take the stress out of getting dressed, we try to make it easy on you by sharing shoppable links (accessed by clicking the PINK words or the actual photo) with awesome readers like you. We want to let you know, some of those contain affiliate links for products. There is absolutely no additional cost to you if you take action (click, purchase, subscribe) with one of these links. As a result, we will earn some coffee money from your click.  But we promise to drink it while creating more ad-free, helpful content like this.


Outfit details:


Cleveland-based personal stylist and fashion blogger.


  1. I like 2,5,6 & 8 on you Hallie. Would love to see your take on the other, more vague dress codes that are often used.

  2. Love your blog Hallie. Always so much fun and informational, and you look gorgeous in everything.

  3. michele lee Reply

    For a black tie event 2 & 5 ( I know I included another on instagram but I think these two are exceptional!) Please let us know what you decide!!

  4. Pingback: Citrus Social » Citrus Hearts AHA

Write A Comment