Six Easy Tips for Understanding Dress Codes and Knowing What to Wear





















By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor

Eek! What am I going to wear?

Is your initial joy in receiving an invitation quickly sucked away by that thought? Mine usually is.

We’ve all been there!

We know our clothes introduce us and speak for us from across the room before we have a chance to say our first word. We want to look good, even to stand out, as long as it’s for our good choice and not for a “What is she wearing?” whisper between two guests.

In the good ol’ days — say, 15 years ago — knowing what to wear to any social event was pretty much no stress.

There were about four different categories of attire, each with easy-to-define guidelines that made getting ready for our adult gatherings as easy as dressing our little ones in Garanimals!

Then someone somewhere decided that individuality and clever labels for suggested attire like “Hollywood Casual” and “Urban Chic” trumped the comfort of the predictability of mutually agreed upon norms like “Business” or “Black tie” and threw away the guidelines.

It’s all too much, and since there’s no public agreement on what these new labels mean, most of them are useless for helping you and me look our best.

The guests that come dressed up to the party look at the guests wearing khakis and sweaters and say, “I’m way overdressed.”

The khaki crowd feels every synapse in their bodies twitter while they glance at their fellow guests in cocktail dresses and four-inch heels and internally mumble, “I didn’t know I was supposed to dress up for this. I look like a frump.”

Oh, for the good ol’ days of mutually known norms!

Let’s bring them back!

We’ll start with you and me. Then the rest of the world just might choose to join us once they experience how much more fun a party is when you don’t spend days trying to decide what to wear and then spend the whole party wishing you had chosen something different.

Enough of that!

You know me; I’m about helping you shine while keeping it easy and gracious. With that in mind, I made a simple, savvy, keep-forever list for translating dress codes and knowing what to wear to look your best!

When different labels mean the same thing, I’ve listed them on the same line. They cover 99% of events and help you translate an invitation’s dress code to know that you’re in tune with the host’s expectations and with what the other guests will be wearing.

Now you can relax and enjoy your party!

Six Dress Codes Defined 

1. Casual/Holiday Casual: Most men’s favorite! You can pretty much dress like you’re going to the Florida vs. Georgia game! Shorts, jeans, tee-shirts, flip-flops, etc. Just keep in mind your hosts. If they tend to dress up more than down, you’ll want to mirror that when you’re picking out what to wear.

For Holiday Casual events you can pull out that Christmas sweater, but you don’t have to. It just means you’ll want to add a little holiday sparkle to your outfit. Maybe wear a blouse with a few sequins with your jeans, or some sparkling jewelry. Holiday colors of red, green, royal blue, silver, gold and winter white are also great.

2. Semi-Casual/Business Casual: This label isn’t as casual as you think it might be. No denim for anyone. Blazers or sports coats for men are great. No shorts. No khakis for women, although they’re fine for men.Keep in mind you don’t want to wear anything you wouldn’t wear to a traditional office on a day when you were going to be seeing clients or customers.

3. Business: This is the most misunderstood category. Depending on your line of work, “Business Attire” on an invitation might be more formal than what you wear on a day-to-day basis at the office.

Think of your presidential candidates, male or female, on TV for one of the big debates. They’re very well dressed. That’s what’s actually meant by “Business Attire” on an invitation. Dress like you’re interviewing for a six-figure job — or running for president!

Suits and ties for men are expected. For women, it’s business dresses or suits, either skirts or pants (skirts are most common). Dress-business shoes and great accessories will complete your outfit and help you look fantastic.

4. Semi-formal/Cocktail: For men: dark suits and white shirts, silk ties in more formal-looking patterns. For women: the classic little black dress or an outfit (blouse and either skirt or pants) of a silky, satin, or other light fabric, highest heels you can comfortably wear, or adorable flats, sparkling jewelry. Usually no long dresses.

5. Formal/Black Tie: Go all out, but keep in mind that understated usually makes the best statement. Dinner jacket (tuxedo) for men; long dress for women. Think walking the red carpet at the Oscars!

6. White Tie: Something most of us will never see on our invitations. Requires men to wear a white bow tie and a white dinner jacket with tails. Ladies must wear a long dress with long white gloves. Think dining with the Queen at Buckingham Palace! Even the White House now hosts just one or two White Tie events each year. These evenings are usually to honor visiting heads of state, the Pope, and the like.

What’s Next?

Are you on Facebook? Come join our “Manners Matter” family! It’s loads of fun! And, it will be more fun with you there! Manners Mentor Facebook Page.

Until next time, keep doing what only you can do! Bless those around you by being you at your authentic best!



Maralee McKee

About Maralee McKee

Maralee McKee is the founder of Manners Mentor. With her best-friend style, sense of humor, and knack for updating etiquette to meet our modern sensibilities, she has been referred to as "Sandra Bullock meets Emily Post!" Maralee shows you how to become the best version of yourself. No fluff. No pretense. Just you at your authentic best! The person you were always meant to be! To learn more about Maralee click on the "Meet Maralee" or "New? Start Here" links at the top of this page.

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