6 Dec 2023

Deconstructing Dress Codes

Our ancestors knew precisely what clothes were acceptable for each social occasion, and never deviated from these strict guidelines. Old certainties, traditions and customs are fast disappearing in the modern world, and the whole concept of dress codes is not immune to this process.

It is argued that, if invitations stipulate a dress code, it is helpful to guests, eliminating “what should I wear?” anxiety and giving them a clear indication of the nature of the event. But as the formal dress codes of yesteryear are gradually eroded and deconstructed, many people are finding that dress codes are a cause of acute anxiety, because they are vague or challenging, without being explicit or self-explanatory.

It is useful to briefly reiterate the guidance for the old-fashioned dress codes that you might encounter for social events at this time of year, which are proscriptive and time-honoured, before we turn to more confusing modern dress codes.

Conventional Dress Codes

White Tie
This is the most formal event code, and the rarest, and is inevitably announced on an elaborate invitation several weeks before the event. Men should wear a black single-breasted tailcoat, with silk lapels, worn unbuttoned, with matching black trousers, with two lines of braid down the outside of the trouser legs. A white shirt is fastened with studs not buttons, with a detachable wing collar and a thin white bow tie. Women should wear a full-length evening dress or ball gown, with or without sleeves. Long gloves may be worn with sleeveless dresses.

Black Tie
For many people, this is the most formal dress code they will ever encounter. Men should wear a black, wool, single-breasted dinner jacket, with no vents, silk peaked lapels, or a shawl collar, and covered buttons. The black trousers are tapered with a single row of braid. It should be worn with a soft-collared white or cream shirt and a bow tie – avoid clip-on or ready-tied ties and learn how to tie your own. Women should wear an evening dress; knee length cocktail dresses are the most popular choice, though floor-length evening dresses can also be worn.

Lounge Suit
This misleadingly named dress code refers to business attire: for men, a dark or grey suit, collar and tie and formal, polished, black shoes. Women should wear a skirt or trouser suit or a dress and jacket, with mid-heel shoes. This dress code would be suitable for drinks after work or dinner in a restaurant.

Smart Casual
This is by far the most common of all dress codes. In essence, this is not business attire, so men should wear a jacket and quite possibly a tie, or an open-necked silk or patterned shirt, with chinos or tailored trousers. Women can opt for a dress, skirt or a pair of smart trousers, which may be paired with a jacket, but denim, even designer denim, is probably too casual. For evening parties, women may choose to dress up their look, with a more decorative cocktail-style dress, evening-stye trousers, statement jewellery and higher heels.

Smart casual is a bit of a ‘catch-all’ dress code, so it is best to think about the context before choosing your outfit. An invitation card to an evening event in the city indicates something both more formal and therefore smart and fashionable than an email asking you to celebrate a friend’s birthday in the country.

The general rule, with all these dress codes, is that it’s preferable to look over-, rather than under-dressed. An immaculate turn out is far more courteous to your host and nine times out of ten you will look better too.

Challenging Dress Codes

As people begin to play around with the rigid formality of dress codes, new dilemmas are emerging. Some codes are reasonably self-explanatory, others are obscure diktats, which seem to demand an elusive, but desirable, quality (chic, glamour) or a certain kind of impact (“dress to impress”). These dress codes concentrate on evoking mood, projecting image and allure; lacking the definitive sartorial guidance of, for example, “black tie”, they may leave some people feeling anxious and inadequate, unsure that they will be able to conjure the effect their hosts desire. Playing with dress codes can be fun, but making your guests feel that they are not up to the dress code challenge is not very hospitable, so think through the implications carefully before you go down this road. In general, these dress codes fall into the following categories:

‘Relaxed’ black tie
This may be referred to as “bohemian black tie” or “creative black tie”, implying that a rigorous adherence to old-fashioned dress codes is not expected. So, a woman could opt for short or long dress (or tailored or palazzo style evening trousers), while a man might be able to take the basic building blocks of black tie and introduce some variations (eg a normal black tie instead of a bow tie), the addition of a glamorous waistcoat, or possibly a velvet smoking jacket instead of the standard black dinner jacket.

Cocktail attire
Other terms for this code include “smart frocks” or “party dress”. These codes release guests, especially men, from rigid strictures. They can discard dinner jackets and bow ties if they choose and opt for smart lounge suits, velvet jackets, Nehru jackets and so on. Women can choose whatever dress/trouser combination they feel will make them look chic and glamorous. 

Fanciful codes
This is when the host’s imagination runs free, eg “razzle dazzle”, “denim and diamonds”, “velvet decadence”, “vintage glamour” and so on. You might be the sort of person who loves this kind of challenge and can confidently rise to it. If you’re a more discreet and laid-back person you can just acknowledge it with accessories (costume jewellery, velvet stole, vintage evening bag, feather boa, a glittering bow tie and so on). This will show that you’ve noted the dress code and have made a gesture towards complying.

Dress to impress
Imprecatory dress codes, such as “Simply fabulous”, “Dress to kill”, “Dress to Impress” may fill you with performance anxiety. But really the hosts are simply pleading with their guests to make an effort, and to dress up, rather than down, for the party. Whether you’ll impress or knock out the other guests with your outfit is an unpredictable and subjective business, but at least you’ll know that under-dressing is not an option.


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