So you’ve just received an invite, maybe it’s something seemingly simple like “black tie” or “formal”, or it might be the far harder to navigate instruction of “smart casual”. Dress codes can be confusing, and are something rarely taught these days - not to mention the rules have shifted and relaxed over recent decades.
Dress codes pop up more than you’d think; some restaurants may even insist on a certain standard of dress for entry, and the last thing you want is to be left standing on the sidewalk because you don’t have a tie or dinner jacket. You also don’t want to be the guy in sneakers at a black tie event, or a tuxedo at what turns out to be a backyard wedding
Outfit anxiety is real; with a more relaxed approach to dressing in recent years, putting an outfit together for an event can be more confusing than ever, so we’ve broken down all the different dress codes to make life easy. We’ll start with the most formal.
Let’s get this one out of the way first. The most formal dress code in Western fashion, white tie is as high calibre as it gets clothing wise; this is when you go all out. It’s strict, very traditional, and rarely called for these days - however if you do find yourself invited to a white tie event, here’s what you need to know.
Kind of like an extra-fancy tuxedo, white tie consists of a black tailcoat in ultrafine wool with peak lapels in silk, high-waisted black dress trousers, a starched white shirt, low-cut white waistcoat and white bow tie. The shirt should feature a detachable wing collar and single cuffs fastened with cufflinks. Trousers should have traditional silk braiding down the side. A white scarf can be added to the outfit in winter, and footwear should be patent or high polished black leather oxfords or formal slip-ons.
Usually prescribed for formal events like weddings, galas or high-end parties, balls and fundraisers, this is your chance to look sharp - think Bond, James Bond. Although it was once a strict, intricate dress code, in recent years the idea of black tie has loosened up a bit. Black tie basically means you wear a tuxedo - for an in-depth look into the difference between a tuxedo and a suit, read our blog post on the matter. [Link to blog post]
In a nutshell, your outfit should consist of tailored black formal pants (never with turn-up cuffs) with a matching jacket featuring a peaked lapel or shawl collar - this can be single or double breasted. Your shirt should be a white evening shirt, ideally with a marcella bib or pleated front and stud closures, or a (more modern) hidden placket - it should also boast french cuffs, finished with cufflinks. Always wear a black bow tie, and add a white pocket square to your jacket pocket. For extra flair and a nod to tradition, consider wearing a traditional cummerbund or low-cut formal waistcoat.
Your jacket should have one button, or two at the very most, and only the top one should be fastened (although unfasten it when sitting). Midnight blue can be worn, and this often looks darker than black in photos. Ivory or cream dinner jackets are also acceptable (usually in warmer climates) and are paired with black trousers and a white shirt; they’re a fresh, suave look - try it! For those guys that have a bit of flair and like to stand out a bit, a black velvet dinner jacket can be worn for black tie occasions.
Footwear should ideally be patent or highly polished leather in black, and in the style of oxfords (not derbies or brogues) or formal slip-ons such in leather or velvet. It goes without saying that your socks should be black.
If you’re feeling particularly brave or patriotic, Scottish Highland Dress can be worn to black tie events - consisting of a kilt in your families tartan, a black barathea jacket, white shirt, bow tie, dress brogues, and several other unique elements.
At the end of the day, they key to black tie is making an effort. You really can’t go wrong if you wear a tux.
Black Tie Optional
This is like classic black tie, but with a little more freedom. Essentially, this dictate is your host’s way of saying that they’d prefer you wore a tux but acknowledges that not everyone owns one. Tuxedos or very formal suits are fine for this occasion - generally in black or other dark hues. As a rule of thumb, assume that some people will be dressed in black tie, so dress up; you should like as polished as possible! This is another occasion to explore a velvet dinner jacket, and finishing touches like pocket squares and bowties.
Morning dress is deeply British and very elegant. Generally worn for daytime weddings (and the races) it features a black morning coat that curves from the waist down to the thigh at the back - known as a cutaway front. It is always single breasted, and is worn with a white shirt, high-cut waistcoat and a tie. Trousers are generally dark grey striped. The waistcoat can be the same colour as the morning coat, or a lighter shade of grey, blue or tan. You can also have a morning coat and trousers in the same fabric - usually grey - which is known as a morning suit.
Somewhat of a grey zone, a formal dress code generally means the wearer can wear black tie or a tailored suit. Both ties and bow ties are acceptable. Although slightly less strict than a black tie dress code, keep suit colours muted, dark and elegant.
This calls for a smart suit, although not a tuxedo. You’ll definitely want to wear a tie and a collared shirt. Depending on the event (like an outdoors wedding) or the season, you can have some fun with lighter coloured suit options like grey, beige or blue.
A limbo of sorts, this dress code sits between formal and daywear. Taking a smart, tailored approach is your best bet. A collared shirt is a must, but your suit could be a bit more relaxed, or you could pair tailored pants with a different coloured blazer. Good news: ties are optional. Explore colour, but keep it subdued, as you’re still dressing for evening. During cooler months, a black merino turtleneck paired with a well cut suit in grey, navy or brown is a sleek, retro look. A patterned shirt can also be a great option here. As always, a well matched footwear and belt combo will help you look pulled together.
Also known as business casual, this is one of the more confusing dress codes to tackle. While the name implies a vague, anything-goes approach and rules are hard to find, there are still some guidelines to follow - at the very least to ensure you don’t offend your host or look slovenly.
Most importantly, the fluidity of a smart casual dress code gives you the freedom to experiment and have fun. However even when incorporating casual elements, make sure everything is of the utmost quality. A rule of thumb is to follow a balanced approach, contrasting more formal elements with casual pieces.
Pair dress pants and a button-up collared shirt with smart leather loafers - ditch the jacket for a relaxed look. Smart, well cut chinos are also perfect for this occasion - but always pair them with a collared shirt. If you want to wear denim make sure it’s crisp and dark, paired with a collared shirt, tailored blazer and suede or leather chelsea boots.
For those wanting to try something different, pair a slim, well-cut suit with a crisp white t-shirt or a patterned shirt for a rakish look. Loafers are a smart and easy finishing touch for either option.
As with any dress code, the secret to looking pulled together is accessories and grooming, a leather belt - ideally matching your footwear - finishes your outfit. And a fresh haircut and groomed facial hair makes even the simplest outfit look far slicker.
For footwear your best options are classic yet less dressy - think chelsea boots in leather or suede, leather loafers or a pair of brogues for their rustic charm. Depending on the host, you could wear a pair of clean, crisp leather sneakers but make sure the rest of your outfit is tailored.