There might be some modern trends that folks of yore could never have envisioned—people really wear sneakers with dresses, to dinner?!—but there are a few holdovers from the Golden Age that are still kickin’. First and foremost: the classical system of labelling invites to events with certain dress codes. For us modern women, this ancient system of codes can be quite confusing—after all, we’re used to wearing our sneakers to dinner!
To help you navigate the landmine that is black tie, creative black tie, business formal, and beyond, we’ve deconstructed the 10 most oft-used dress codes for you. You’ll never wonder what to wear to any event ever again!
Scroll down for a detailed list of decoded dress codes, as well as pieces to shop for each one!
A black-tie event is the epitome of a formal event. Cocktail-length dresses are only allowed if they are extremely dressy and sleek.
What To Wear: A formal, floor-length gown is preferred. Also allowed: a dressy cocktail dress or your best LBD paired with fancier jewellery, which will elevate the overall look.
Vera Wang Collection Twist Shoulder Gown ($1,995)
A black-tie-optional event is still dressy, but not as strict. In other words, you can wear a formal evening gown, but no one will look at you twice if you choose to wear a cocktail dress.
What To Wear: A formal floor-length evening gown, fancier cocktail dress, a tux-style pantsuit, or LBD.
Roksanda Ilincic Alia Pleated Duchesse-Satin Maxi Skirt ($1,775)
This is a professional look that isn’t overly dressy. Think: something you could definitely wear to the office (i.e., on the conservative side) but would feel comfortable wearing to grab a work drink.
What To Wear: An open-collar shirt or sweater, with a pencil skirt or trousers. You can also wear a dress, as long as it’s not provocative.
Imagine what you would wear if you were giving a very important presentation at work. That’s essentially how you should dress for a business casual event.
What To Wear: A tailored, polished dress with a blazer, or a pantsuit. Whatever you wear, style it with appropriate heels. This is not the time for flats or super-high club shoes.
Jason Webber/Splash News
Your average brunch look.
What To Wear: A skirt (either long or short) and plain tee, nice jeans with a button-down blouse, or a cotton sundress. Flats are fine.
Think: black tie with some breathing room. Still formal and dressy, but with a smidge of playfulness thrown in.
What To Wear: A dressy cocktail dress, floor-length evening gown, or LBD, plus fun and unique accessories.
Oscar de la Renta Lace-Trimmed Embellished Tulle Dress ($6,990)
Lulu Frost Decade Simulated Pearl Statement Necklace ($588)
Think: Olivia Palermo on just about any given day. A look that is casual, but not at all lazy or frumpy.
What To Wear: A dressy blouse with jeans and heels, a skirt and top set, a crisp pantsuit, or a dress. Flats are acceptable as long as they are not overtly casual (i.e., no sneakers).
Isabel Marant Paw Strappy Heeled Sandals ($518)
Needle and Thread Constellation Maxi Dress ($311)
As the name suggests, a semiformal event is just that: semi formal. It’s certainly still dressy, but not as much so as a black-tie-optional event.
What To Wear: A cocktail dress, LBD, floor-length skirt and blouse in appropriate fabrics, like silk, or dressy separates. You can also wear a long dress if you wish.
Ted Baker Opulent Bloom Floral-Print Midi Dress ($295)
This is the most extravagant of all the dress codes—perhaps that’s why this year’s Met Gala utilised it. Think: full ball gown, elbow-length gloves, and all your best jewellery.
What To Wear: A floor-length evening gown (mandatory), gloves (optional), and your best jewellery. Your dress should incorporate luxe fabrications, like lace, silk, and chiffon.
Elie Saab Striped Honeycomb-Mesh and Brushed-Satin Gown ($7,800)
As the name suggests, this is a dressy event that is still meant to be primarily social and enjoyable.
What To Wear: A cocktail dress (obviously), LBD, or a shorts suit in more formal fabrications, plus a sleek pair of heels. Flats are not recommended, but can work in certain situations.
Katie Ermilio Floating Lace Long-Sleeve Cocktail Dress ($4,250)
Monique Lhuillier Long-Sleeve Net Lace Midi Cocktail Dress ($2,495)
3.1 Phillip Lim Sundress with Pintucked Sides in Goldenrod ($288)