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Different social settings have different types of dress codes. Some are casual; some are formal and most fall somewhere in between. It’s difficult for men to find the proper outfit for every occasion, so we’re here to clear the air about the various dress code rules. We’ll give you a brief rundown of each type and all the clothing articles you might need. Let’s get started!
1. Ultra Casual
As the name suggests, the ultra-casual dress code is the least formal on the list. It consists of everyday clothing items you wear with friends:
- Shirt: t-shirts, sweaters, hoodies
- Pants: jeans, khaki shorts, gym shorts
- Footwear: sneakers, slides, flip-flops
You’ll know a social setting is ultra-casual based on the attendees. If it’s just you and a handful of close friends, dress however you want. If you plan on meeting new people, consider upgrading to the following type of dress code.
Casual is a small step up from ultra-casual – not formal by any means, but appropriate enough to make a good first impression. The casual wardrobe consists of these types of clothes:
- Shirt: well-fitting t-shirt, polo shirt
- Pants: jeans, khaki pants/shorts
- Footwear: sneakers, canvas, boots
We see a little bit of overlap with the ultra-casual dress code, but adding the polo shirt and classier footwear shows that a casual dress code requires some effort.
3. Smart Casual
Smart casual is a flexible look, appropriate for laid-back work environments and social settings. It’s relaxed but not messy. As you can see, the wardrobe is a little more expansive than the first two types of dress codes:
- Blazer: not a necessary addition, but it adds another layer of sophistication.
- Shirt: Oxford shirt, other button-up collared shirts
- Pants: dress pants, dark jeans, chinos
- Footwear: dress shoes, boots, canvas, high-end sneakers
You might wear a smart casual outfit on a first date, a work party or an extended family event. You can even go smart casual for the most informal settings, though your friends might make fun of you for overdressing.
4. Business Casual
Most offices call for a business casual dress code, which is a step back from the traditional suit-and-tie corporate style. Still, you have to look professional. Here’s what you can wear:
- Blazer: you’re expected to wear a light jacket or blazer to start the day.
- Shirt: Oxford shirt, other button-up shirts
- Pants: dress pants
- Footwear: dress shoes, loafers, chugs, chukka boots
- Accessories: tie (optional), belt, watch
This style contains elements of the outdated business dress code elements, but it’s clearly more flexible with footwear and accessories. Thankfully, businesses realized you don’t need to wear a three-piece suit every day to be successful.
This dress code is reserved for select evening occasions, including cocktail parties, wedding receptions and off-the-clock formal work events. Your cocktail outfit should be formal enough to impress, but feel free to add a little personal flair with these clothing options:
- Blazer: a polished blazer is appropriate, but not mandatory. Expect to wear it when you arrive and take it off once the environment loosens up. Alternatively, you could wear a less-overbearing sweater vest.
- Shirt: Oxford shirt, other button-up shifts
- Pants: dress pants
- Footwear: dress shoes, loafers, chugs, chukkas, suede/velvet shoes (if you’re feeling bold)
- Accessories: tie, bowtie, belt, suspenders, watch, pocket square
Unlike business casual and other more restrictive types of dress codes, you’re not limited to the options that your workplace allows. You can wear any kind of formal or semi-formal clothes you want.
Speaking of semi-formal, this dress code falls into two subcategories: daytime and nighttime. The daytime category focuses on light-colored suits, while the nighttime category has dark-colored suits (except black) and more room for customization. Here are the various semi-formal clothing options:
- Blazer: neutral colors like brown, charcoal and navy work best for a semi-formal blazer.
- Shirt: white, light blue and other pastel colors pair well with the darker blazer.
- Pants: your dress pants should be the same color as the blazer.
- Footwear: brown is usually the best dress shoe color for non-black suits.
- Accessories: tie, bowtie, belt, watch, pocket square
You might prefer the daytime or nighttime category based on your favorite colors, but you should tread carefully either way. Black is too formal, and extravagant colors are too casual.
7. Business Formal
Instead, you should reserve the black suits for your business formal attire. Business formal is the dress code expected for important business meetings, interviews and solemn events like funerals. Black is the best color, but navy and dark grey work too. This wardrobe is relatively straightforward:
- Blazer: a dark blazer is the only viable option for business formal.
- Shirt: a light Oxford shirt with solid colors or pinstripes
- Pants: your pants should match the blazer.
- Footwear: black or brown dress shoes, depending on your suit color
- Accessories: tie, belt, watch, pocket square
Other clothing items we saw in previous types of dress codes, such as bowties, are not appropriate for business formal. This is a conservative dress code that doesn’t appreciate personality.
8. Black-Tie Creative
The black-tie creative wardrobe is a more customizable version of business formal. The dark suit remains the foundation, but you can switch things up with additional accessories and also wear a tuxedo if you want. Here are the basics for this type of wardrobe:
- Blazer: a dark blazer, either for a tuxedo or regular suit.
- Shirt: stick with a solid white dress shirt.
- Pants: your pants should match the blazer (again).
- Footwear: black or patent leather dress shoes
- Accessories: black tie/bowtie, watch, belt, pocket square, cuff links, button studs
While the word “creative” is in the name, be careful not to take too many creative liberties with your suit. Additions like pocket flaps and back vents are frowned upon.
9. Black-Tie Optional
This dress code is slightly less formal than a full tuxedo. The “optional” part refers to your personal choice to wear a tux or stick with a traditional suit and tie. The tux is preferable, but not mandatory. If you can’t wear one, a polished black suit with notch lapels is the next best thing. These are your other clothing options:
- Blazer: black or dark blue are the only appropriate color options.
- Shirt: solid white with french cuffs is the expectation, but barrel cuffs are also acceptable.
- Pants: black or dark blue, depending on your blazer
- Footwear: black or patent leather dress shoes
- Accessories: black or dark blue tie/bowtie, belt, watch, suspenders, pocket square, cuff links, button studs
We’ve gotten to the point where the dress code leaves little room for interpretation. If you receive an invitation to a black-tie optional event, expect to have the same outfit as every other man in the room with slight variations.
10. Black-Tie Formal
The black-tie formal is identical to the black-tie optional wardrobe, without the “option.” Only tuxedos are allowed, and they should have all the accessories. Let’s go through everything you need to meet the requirements for this dress code:
- Blazer: a single or double-breasted tuxedo jacket with a peak lapel or shaw (never notched). If you choose the lapel, make sure it’s made of silk. Black is the preferable color, but navy and white are allowed under certain circumstances.
- Shirt: white shirt with a winged collar and French cuffs. Accompany the shirt with a waistcoat or cumberbund, but never both.
- Pants: tuxedo trousers with no cuff. The outseam should have a single stripe of silk or satin.
- Footwear: black patent leather Oxford dress shoes, as shiny as possible
- Accessories: black bowtie only, belt, watch, suspenders, pocket square, button studs, cufflinks, lapel flower, evening scarf
You can expect to wear this attire at award ceremonies, private dinners, galas and other exclusive events. The black-tie formal dress code is almost as classy as you can get. Almost.
11. White Tie
At last, we arrive at the white tie dress code, the most formal of them all. We only see this wardrobe at royal events and upper-class galas anymore, but it remains the fashion industry’s pinnacle of class and sophistication. Some people also call this style “full dress” because it includes more articles of clothing than you probably knew existed. Here’s everything you need:
- Blazer: tailored double-breasted black jacket with silk facings, peak lapels and a tailcoat that reaches the back of the knee. The sleeves should fall short to reveal your shirt cuffs.
- Shirt: plain white dress shirt with a wingtip collar. Nothing crazy.
- Waistcoat: white tie is the only dress code that requires a waistcoat. It should be low-cut with three or four front buttons. Make sure it covers your waistband but doesn’t go beyond the tailcoat’s front hem.
- Pants: black, high-waisted dress pants with one or two silk/satin stripes, upheld by suspenders.
- Footwear: black patent leather Oxford dress shoes with low heels
- Accessories: white bowtie only, belt, watch, suspenders, pocket square, button studs, cufflinks, lapel flower, evening scarf, white gloves, black top hat
Aside from a few accessories, your outfit should look the same as every other man’s outfit in the room. The tuxedo and waistcoat are mandatory, down to the last detail. You can spice things up with a different-colored pocket square or lapel, but that’s the only personality white-tie occasions allow.
Dress for the Occasion
Next time you get invited to an event with a particular dress code, you’ll know exactly what to wear and avoid. Chances are you won’t have to wear a white-tie outfit any time soon, but the middle types of dress codes can be challenging to interpret. Take that challenge head-on and use this guide to find the proper attire for the occasion!