11 Oct 2022

Do Dress Codes Matter?

In an increasingly casual society, where many people only dress up on very rare occasions, dress codes may seem irrelevant. But they are an invaluable social signal, designed to protect guests from the embarrassment of turning up at an event underdressed, overdressed or in entirely inappropriate clothes.

With the exception of weddings, most of us do not give much thought to specified dress codes. However, we have probably all felt the frustration of receiving an invitation that gives no real clue to the level of formality required. We are reduced to desperately scanning the invitation, scrutinising the typography, design, venue and timings for clues, and the big question “what to wear?” becomes a needless source of social anxiety.  

The days when every invitation specified dress code, and there were detailed rules governing the correct clothes for every occasion – from morning visits to afternoon tea, dinner parties and balls – are long gone. But dress codes can still provide useful parameters and advance intelligence for guests. ­Even if formal dress codes are not required, some guidance and advice is always a useful addition to invitations.

White Tie

It is extraordinary to think that only a couple of generations ago white tie was standard evening dress and black tie was considered informal. Today, the most formal and rarest British dress code is white tie. Invitations to white tie events, such as a grand ball, are traditionally sent several weeks in advance so there is time to prepare. White tie for men means 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.

Morning Dress/Formal Day Dress

Formal day dress is worn for the Derby, Britain’s most important horse race, Royal Ascot, royal garden parties and weddings. Men should wear a black or grey morning coat, single breasted, with peaked lapels, curved front edges sloping back at the sides into knee-length tails. This should be worn with a white or light-coloured shirt, silk tie and a grey or buff waistcoat. At Ascot and the Derby men wear a top hat; this is not necessary for weddings, though some people like to complete the outfit. Hats are not worn indoors. Women can opt to wear an elegant dress, a suit or a dress and jacket. Skirts need to be about knee length or slightly longer and the upper body should be covered for day events, as opposed to evening parties, so avoid cocktail dresses and low necklines. For Ascot and weddings, hats are essential – matching hats to an existing outfit can be hard and the cleverest trick is to get a black hat, which will always look elegant and will go with almost anything.

Black Tie

Black tie became popular when it was adopted by King Edward VIII and his royal brothers in the 1930s. Today black tie is the most formal dress code many people will experience. It remains usual for dinner dances and balls, formal dinners, such as dinners in the City of London, and occasionally for formal dinners in private houses. The jacket is 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. Wear with a soft-collared white or cream shirt. The bow tie itself should be traditional and not too big. Avoid clip-on or ready-tied ties and learn how to tie your own. Ladies 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

Despite its name, what this really means is 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. Outside the office this dress code would be acceptable for a business lunch or a social lunch on a weekday or for drinks after work or dinner in a restaurant. In the past, wearing business attire for dinner in someone’s house would have been incorrect, but realistically with longer working hours it is now more common. Men may wish to remove their tie on arrival if others are more casually dressed.

Smart Casual

Apart from the more formal dress codes described here, the one most frequently encountered is smart casual. In essence this is not business attire, so men should wear a jacket and quite possibly a tie, but wear the jacket or blazer with chinos or flannels. Ladies may wear a dress and jacket or trousers but denim, even designer denim, is probably too casual. Avoid anything that may look like beach or athletic gear and wear leather shoes, not trainers or sandals. Smart casual is usually a dress code for daytime events. For evening, the rules for men are not very different, though darker trousers and a silk shirt may work better. Women may choose a cocktail dress, more jewellery and higher heels.

Understanding the context helps get smart casual right. Consider the age group of the people concerned and even the weather. Is the event in the city or the country?  Will it be held in the day or the evening? Did you receive a formal invitation several weeks in advance or was it a telephone call from a close friend for the following weekend?  All these things make a difference. 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 next Saturday.

The best way to look really right, especially with smart casual, is to focus on accessories. A smart belt, perfect shoes, a great watch, a statement necklace or earrings, (but not both at once) make all the difference. While it is increasingly fashionable to look unkempt and crumpled, it is always safest to leave the just-fallen-out-of-bed look to celebrities. An immaculate turn out is far more courteous to your host and nine times out of ten you will look better too.

If you’re unsure about the just how smart ‘smart casual’ is, you can always arrive looking smartly dressed and be prepared to make ad hoc adjustments: men can probably just remove ties and undo top buttons; women can remove dressy jewellery, take off a tailored jacket and put on a cardigan, or substitute ballet flats for killer heels.

New Dress Codes

The above dress codes are time-honoured and traditional. These days, hosts whose planned events are adhering to a theme, or are in unusual venues, are creating their own dress codes, and it is perfectly acceptable to do so. If you have a very clear idea of how you want your party to be, it is essential to communicate this to your guests – you don’t want them turning up in black tie to a country style barn dance… Some examples of these new codes would be phrases like ‘Festival attire’ (super-casual and quirky, wellingtons recommended), ‘Outdoor’ (warm coats, hats, gloves and robust footwear).

Alternatively, hosts might prefer their guests to dress up, but are reluctant to impose the rigid guidelines of, a ‘black tie’ dress code on them. If this is the case, they might specify ‘smart frocks’ or ‘cocktail attire’ to indicate that an effort is required. A catch-all phrase that is designed to indicate that smart, glamorous, flamboyant, or eye-catching clothes are de rigueur is ‘dress to impress’, though be aware that this places a burden of expectation on your guests and some of them may find this command onerous or intimidating.

If you’re holding a party and you really don’t mind what people wear and feel quite relaxed about them turning up in jeans, shorts, flipflops, sports clothes etc, then why not let them off the hook and simply state ‘come as you are’. It will mean that they don’t have to worry about clothes or dressing up and will ensure that they feel super-relaxed.

Just Ask

If you’re consumed with doubt and unsure about what you should wear, you can always ask the hostess (a quick text or email is probably fine, especially if it’s not last minute). If you don’t really know the hostess, see if you know anyone else who’s going and swap notes with them.


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