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Decoding the Dress Code: What to Wear to a Party

We have all been there. You spend hours preparing an elaborate, dressy outfit and show up to the party and everyone else is wearing jeans. 

Or, just the opposite. You show up wearing jeans and everyone else is dressed to the nines-the invitation said, "causal," but as you've found out-casual is relative.

Considering parties are supposed to be fun and enjoyable, don't fret too much about your attire. Although it can be tricky, it can also be decoded. 

No matter what - rock your style, and if you're comfortable with your look, who cares what anyone else might think!

Black Tie vs. White Tie

Black tie? White tie? Who knew the two colors would be so (or not so) distinct from each other?

What It Means: The difference doesn't just come down to tie colors: white tie is synonymous with ultra-formal attire and is even dressier than black tie. White tie is generally reserved for grand events and is only worn after 6 P.M.

Ladies: For black tie, a long dress is appropriate but not absolutely required. For white tie, a formal gown is a must -- no cocktail dresses allowed! With white tie attire, be sure to wear your best jewelry and accessories.

If you have a fur coat, this would definitely be the time to wear it. Depending on the feel of the event, bare shoulders might be inappropriate for white tie -- though for most modern events it would be fine as long as the gown is formal enough.

Gentlemen: Black tie dictates that men should wear a tuxedo, while white tie dress includes a white bowtie (and white cummerbund, if appropriate) and tails.


Creative Black Tie

Does creative mean painting pink dots on your favorite black tie? Think again.

What It Means: Feel free to try your own interpretation of traditional black tie dress. You can add your own trendy touch or personality to formal wear.

How to Pull It Off: Channel your inner fashionista and pick something traditional with a modern twist.

Ladies: You aren't required to wear a long gown. Mix it up by choosing a knee-length cocktail dress, but make sure to keep it very formal with an evening fabric and preferably a dark color.

Gentlemen: You should probably still wear a tux, however you don't have to stick with the traditional black tie with white shirt. You can forego the tie altogether, or choose to wear a colored or black shirt underneath the jacket.


Black Tie Optional

Should you wear a dress or not? Tux or suit?

What It Means: The event is definitely formal, but you have the option of wearing a tuxedo or a long dress.

Ladies: You aren't required to wear a long dress, but you certainly can. The other option would be a formal cocktail dress. Make sure to pair your outfit with jewelry and nice accessories, and definitely wear fancy heels.

Gentlemen: You can wear a tuxedo, but needn't pair it with a bowtie or tie. A dark suit is another option, but make sure it looks sharp and formal.


Elegant/Dressy Casual

Both have the word "casual" in them, but this may not include jeans in your attire.

What It Means: be comfortable and relaxed while still looking put together.

How to Pull It Off: Dress nicer than usual for the office, and bring a few things for a quick change on your way to the party.

Ladies: You can wear a flowing skirt, relaxed dress, pants or even nice, tailored jeans. Pair it with a cute cotton top, a belt and jewelry. Don't forget to wear heels or a smart pair of flats.

Gentlemen: Pair a nice button-down shirt with casual slacks, khakis or well-fitted, dark wash jeans. Roll up the sleeves on the shirt and wear it untucked for a more casual feel, but don't forget to wear nice leather loafers -- no tennis shoes allowed!



The word "festive" might make you think immediately of the holiday season, but think again.

What It Means: Put down those antlers! Festive attire is actually something between business attire and cocktail attire.

How to Pull It Off: Dress up your work attire after leaving the office, or dress down your usual cocktail clothing by donning something more casual or covered up.

Ladies: Wear a jacket over a dress or silk fabric (with pencil skirt) to work. For the evening, leave your jacket off and add a bold necklace for some sparkle.

Gentlemen: Wear a suit paired with a lively button-down to work. For the evening, remove your tie and unbutton the top one or two buttons on your shirt. If the party is more casual, remove your jacket as well.


Daytime Dress vs. Evening Dress

Daytime dress and evening dress don't just inform you of what time of the day the party is, but they tell you how to dress.

What It Means: As if attire terms aren't confusing enough, "semi-formal" day event attire is actually different from "semi-formal" evening attire. A distinction exists for formal attire as well.

Ladies, Semi-formal: For a semi-formal daytime event, such as a wedding, a knee-length dress, dressy separates or a nice pantsuit are good picks. For a semi-formal evening event women should choose a nice cocktail dress. Pantsuits are too casual for night-time occasions.

Ladies, Formal: For a formal daytime event women can wear a nice short dress or a flowy long dress; even a dressy suit would be appropriate. However, only formal dresses should be worn to a formal evening event.

Gentlemen, Semi-formal: A suit of any color (light included) can be worn to a semi-formal daytime event. However, a semi-formal evening event requires a dark colored suit -- navy, dark grey or black.

Gentlemen, Formal: A dark suit with a tie would be appropriate. For an evening event, men should go dressier with a tux or a very formal, well-tailored black suit with nice silk black tie.


Informal Attire

Watch out for the real meaning behind the simple, yet dangerous, word "informal" 

What It Means: This is a tricky one, because informal does not mean casual. It's actually closer to "semi-formal."

How to Pull it Off: Think of this as a less-stuffy "formal" affair.

Ladies: Dressy separates or a cocktail-length dress fit the bill. Make sure your shoes are dressy as well; kitten heels and higher are good choices.

Gentlemen: A nice suit is a good choice for informal men's attire. Choose a suit in a darker color to ensure you are dressy enough.

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Meet our Writer
Jennifer Geddes
Celebrations Writer

Jennifer Kelly Geddes has hosted Christmas cookie swaps, New Year's open houses, Thanksgiving for 22, and all manner of dinner parties in her Manhattan and Ghent, NY homes.

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