What All Of Those Confusing Dress Code Terms Really Mean

What All Of Those Confusing Dress Code Terms Really Mean
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You just received an invitation to an event or party, and in the dress code section it says something to the effect of “business casual” or “black tie attire only.” Here’s what all of those dress code terms actually mean, and few examples of each to get you off on the right foot.

Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.

Dress codes are everywhere: work, conferences, weddings, birthday parties, cocktail parties, etc. Unfortunately, not all of us are so fashion-inclined to know what every single term means in regards to proper attire. These are the major dress code terms you should know:

  • Casual: Can also be called “informal.” Essentially, this means that anything goes… Almost. You should still be tasteful and avoid worn out clothing with holes, tears, and stains if possible.
  • Smart casual: This can also be called “casual dressy” or “dressy casual.” The general consensus is that you should aim for what Cynthia Nellis at About Style defines as, “dressed-up versions of casual looks.” For men, that might mean a nice pair of trousers — or very nice jeans — with a polo or button-up shirt. For women, the same thing, but a nice knee-length skirt is acceptable as well. Usually it’s best to avoid shorts, old pairs of jeans, and t-shirts for this dress code.
  • Business casual: This is probably the most confusing of the bunch because it mixes the words “business” (professional and proper) with “casual” (what seems like the exact opposite). The truth is it varies by industry, age group, and location. Fortunately, we have some examples that cover most of those. Generally speaking, women should wear a skirt or dress with a hem past the knee, or tailored dress pants with a button-down or blouse. Men should wear dress pants or khakis, with a collared shirt and a belt.
  • Garden attire or beach formal: This means you should “dress to impress,” but consider the environment when you select your outfit. If it’s “beach formal,” sandals and other open-toe style shoes are acceptable. For “garden attire,” Margaret Jones of Scriptura explains that female guests should wear wedge heels or flats so they don’t sink in the dirt or grass. Depending on the time of year, a “garden attire” gathering could mean light coloured linen for men and summer dresses for women.
  • Cocktail attire: Sometimes called “cocktail chic” as well. Jessica Ellis at WiseGEEK explains that cocktail attire means you should be well dressed (no shorts, sandals, or t-shirts), but there is usually some wiggle room for personality. Still, both men and women should aim for darker colours. Men should wear dark suits (with or without a tie), dress pants with dress shirts, and even a nice pair of jeans with a sport coat or jacket. Women should wear knee-length skirts or dress pants with a nice sweater or blouse, or go for the classic “little black cocktail dress.”
  • Festive: Exactly what it sounds like. This is usually the dress code for holiday parties and other themed get-togethers. According to Leah Bourne at Stylecaster, it’s best to aim for cocktail level attire with a holiday twist. Be creative, but maybe leave the Santa hats and elf ears at home.
  • Business formal: You’ll usually find this dress code being used for business lunches or conferences. According to Leah Bourne at Stylecaster, guys should be in a suit and tie, and gals should be in a tailored dress or pantsuit. Think a more dressy form of business appropriate clothing.
  • Semi-formal: This one can be a little tricky, because it’s basically just a hair below “black tie optional.” The dress etiquette guide at Emily Post suggests men at least wear a darker coloured business suit and tie (vest optional). Women can go with a little black cocktail dress or a long dressy skirt with a nice top. Dress shoes are expected. Basically, the main difference between “black tie optional” and “semi-formal” dress code is that this one isn’t sorta-kinda asking you to wear a tuxedo or evening gown.
  • Black tie optional: This is interchangeable with “formal attire,” according to The Knot, but is still slightly less formal than “black tie.” For men, this means that a tuxedo isn’t required, but a dark suit and tie is considered appropriate for the occasion. For women, a dress or pantsuit in a dark, neutral tone is acceptable. Even a cocktail-length dress can be perfectly fine as long as isn’t too colourful or flashy.
  • Creative black tie: According to etiquette web guide Emily Post, this means a combination of “black tie” with trendy or whimsical items. While tuxedos and dresses are still recommended, you can combine them with coloured shirts, patterned bow ties, and slightly flashier cocktail dresses fit in this dress code. Depending on the occasion, it could also mean different styles of footwear. Things like cowboy boots, bolo ties, and cowboy hats might be appropriate, for example.
  • Black tie: This is considered to be the second highest level of formal attire. This is usually the kind of dress code you’ll be given for weddings or special life events (like an anniversary party). According to the wedding planning blog The Knot, Men should wear a tuxedo with a black bow tie, cummerbund, and a nice pair of leather dress shoes. Women should wear a long evening gown or cocktail dress in a dark, neutral colour like brown or black.
  • White tie: Can also be called “ultra-formal” because this is considered the highest level of dress code. As wedding printing company Hobart’s Printing explains, men should wear a white bow tie, black coat with tails, and a white pique vest over a white formal dress shirt. Women should wear long, formal evening gowns, and gloves when enjoying cocktails and dancing (then removed during dinner). If you get an invitation that says “white tie attire only,” you know this is a very formal occasion.

If you’re still not sure what you should wear, do your research. Get in touch with the organiser or host/hostess and ask them to be more clear, or ask if what you were planning to wear is ok. If you know somebody else who is attending, ask them what they will be wearing (especially if they have been to a similar event before).

Or if you want to try and figure it out under the radar, and the event is a regular occurrence, look up photos from the past and see what people were wearing. It’s not the end of the world if you dress improperly, but it’s best to be sure. There’s no reason not to double check. You might tell yourself that you’re ok taking a risk now, but when you’re the only one that isn’t in a suit, you might be singing a different tune.


  • I’m not sure about the dress colours for women in the more formal attires, I think it depends on the event but I don’t see why formal dresses in bright colours wouldn’t be appropriate, maybe it’s a cultural thing as well, some cultures tend to like brighter colours than others.

  • Semi-formal was what confused us when an invitation to my friends’ engagement party came in the mail.

    According to wikipedia, semi-formal is black tie (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semi-formal) and formal is white tie.

    There was a huge debate (and I actually mean huge) among us, the friends of the groom. We had to ask everyone, and all the girls at the office etc and no consensus could be reached.

    In the end, we had to ask the groom/bride what they mean when they said semi-formal.

  • This is all too complex and seems to also depend on the exact situation and company.

    It would be so much easier if the expected attire was just given verbatim as in the descriptions for each above. Instead we are expected to guess.

    Good advice: err on the side of caution and over-dress. It’s preferable and less risky vs being under-dressed especially for anything work related.

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