Everyone loves a good party, but getting all dolled up for one can sometimes feel like hard work, especially when it comes to navigating a dress code.
You might be a whiz at putting together cocktail or date night outfits, but chances are you’ve had much less practice at dressing for formal black tie or white tie events.
Many party hosts also seem to like stumping their guests with increasingly creative dress codes—just what do “come as you are,” “outdoor chic,” and “festive cocktail” mean, anyway?
If you’re scratching your head about how to assemble the perfect outfit for your next soiree, fret not. This handy guide will expertly break down the most common dress codes, so you can look like the life of the party no matter the occasion.
Come as You Are
Ironically enough, casual dress codes can often be the most confusing, since they’re so broad and therefore so open to interpretation.
When you say “come as you are,” do you mean “come in what you just rolled out of bed in?” Is it possible to go too casual, even? While you’re certainly free to keep your outfit as easygoing and low-key as you like, make sure to stop just short of showing up in your loungewear.
If you find yourself reaching for yoga pants, for instance, consider wearing denim leggings with a flowy top and ballet flats instead.
One smart way to navigate a casual dress code is to follow your host’s lead. If she’s the type to put thought into what she wears even on a regular day, take her cue.
Show up in a soft button-up shirt and nice jeans or bust out a tried-and-true jersey dress and sandals combo. At the core, confidence will carry even the simplest of outfits, so wear whatever makes you feel great.
A smart or dressy casual dress code will still be fundamentally laid back, even if it is a step up from casual. It’s a common dress code for get-togethers held in the host’s home, as well as for professional and networking events.
One quick trick to mastering smart casual? Elevate your casual wardrobe staples by pairing them with more glamorous pieces—your favorite dark-wash jeans, for example, with a chiffon top or a pair of kitten heels.
Accessories can go a long way with this dress code, too, so don’t be afraid to sharpen up your look even further with a statement necklace or some red-carpet-worthy earrings.
If you find yourself shuffling through your wardrobe and feel at a loss as to what pieces to mix and match, that’s totally understandable. Hybrid dress-up dress-down styles like smart casual can really throw you for a loop.
When in doubt, it’s generally advisable to err on the side of overdressed rather than underdressed. The former shows you put effort into your look, while the latter can at times be perceived as disrespectful.
Cocktail attire, also known as semi-formal, calls for elegant party dresses and your best heels. The classic LBD could be your best friend for cocktail events, or you might branch out into other equally chic shades like jewel tones or pastels.
Whatever your color preference, look for rich, luxurious fabrics like velvet, lace, or chiffon in simple, refined silhouettes. It’s also best to choose modest hemlines for this dress code, say two inches above the knee at most.
If dresses aren’t your style, jumpsuits and dressy separates are also perfectly acceptable on semi-formal occasions. You want to look polished while still showing a bit of flair, so do reach for pieces with unique silhouettes or eye-catching details.
And regardless of your other outfit choices, don’t hesitate to go all out on fancy footwear. Cocktail events are the perfect opportunity to show off a statement shoe.
Black Tie/White Tie
Black tie and white tie are the most formal dress codes out there, so you’ll typically see them crop up for evening weddings, galas, and the like.
Floor-length gowns and tuxedos are the go-to choices for these events, and you’ll definitely want to dress to impress. Luxurious fabrics, as well as elegant jewelry and intricate details like lace and beading, are all perfect flourishes under a formal dress code.
Tailored pantsuits are also appropriate for ladies who’d like a smart alternative to the traditional evening gown.
White-tie events, in particular, ask guests to break out their fanciest possible attire. These are events where you can expect to see others looking their red-carpet best and to be seen in turn, so be prepared to pull out all the stops.
It’s common practice, for example, for attendees to such events to have their gowns adjusted by a professional tailor to ensure that they fit perfectly.
You’ll also want to go all-in on hair and makeup for a highly polished, flawless look from head to toe.
It’s become more common these days for party hosts to tack “festive” onto their dress codes, especially if they’re celebrating personally meaningful occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.
Experts generally agree that festive equates to fun, so go for something that makes you feel whimsical. The range of acceptable silhouettes under a festive dress code is very broad, so you can comfortably choose anything from a flirty mini dress to a relaxed maxi depending on the specific nature of the event.
When in doubt, look to event details like location and season for hints on the most ideal colors and fabrics to wear.
A daytime party in the spring or summer will call for light, airy fabrics, and soft colors, whereas jewel or earth tones in heavier materials like crepe and velvet are suitable for the cool months. Playful, quirky accessories, meanwhile, are welcome all year round.
With enough dress code know-how, you’re sure to be the belle of the ball at even the fanciest of shindigs. Just bear in mind that, whatever kind of ensemble an event calls for, the most important guideline is always to do you.
The quickest way to look your best at any event is to wear things that make you feel beautiful, comfortable, and confident, so choose pieces you love and let them work their magic.