Men’s dress codes decoded
There’s no doubt about it, men’s dress codes can be confusing. For many guys, trying to decipher a wedding invitation that suggests “festive semi-formal” or “black tie preferred” is downright frustrating. And then there are the work events, such as office holiday parties. How should you dress in the company of your colleagues when the invite suggests “cocktail attire”?
In this article, I’m going to address each of the major dress code categories. I’m going to give you some practical advice for tackling each one. This way, you can feel confident in what you’re wearing. Plus, I think you’ll even earn yourself some compliments.
Before we get into the details, here’s a handy overview of each dress code along with my recommendation:
- White tie: A dark tuxedo with tails, white dress shirt, white bow tie, and white suspenders.
- Black tie: Dark tuxedo with a bow tie that matches your satin lapel facings. White dress shirt.
- Formal / Black tie optional: A dark 2-piece suit or tuxedo, white shirt, and neck tie.
- Business casual: Wear a jacket and tie, but can be lighter in color.
- Cocktail attire: A dark blazer or sportcoat and dress pants.
Full disclosure, I’ve never actually worn a white-tie outfit. Although I do anxiously await the day!
I don’t spend a lot of time around high-society, so when I hear white-tie attire, the first thing that comes to mind are the State Dinners that a president might host.
Here’s what you need to know: there’s nothing more fancy than a white-tie event. It’s the top of the sartorial ladder. Women will wear elegant floor-length evening gowns and the men are expected to don a tuxedo with tails (but unlike a morning coat, this tuxedo will always be dark).
As you can probably guess, your bow tie (and it should always be a bow tie) must be white. Also in white is your waistcoat, dress shirt, and suspenders. Depending on the event, you might even be required to wear white gloves! Your footwear should be formal and well-shined.
Something to note about the shirt…it would be wise to wear a bib-front white dress shirt. This is the style of dress shirt that has a dedicated front section that won’t wrinkle. It’s stiff and crisp and looks great. You’re also expected to keep your jacket on while wearing this shirt.
The whole theme here is that white-tie attire is fancy! The clothing is elegant and champagne is probably nearby, so don’t even think about dressing down!
My personal favorite of the bunch, black-tie attire is perhaps the easiest dress code on the list.
Men are required to wear a tuxedo. And no tails on it this time. By the way, there was even a time in history when black tie attire was considered informal because it wasn’t white-tie!
Fortunately for you, with a great fitting tuxedo, you get to bring out your inner James Bond. Wear a dark color. Either black, midnight blue, or something in the neighborhood.
Your dress shirt should be white with either studs down the front or otherwise hiding the shirt buttons with a fly front.
Dress shoes can be either black patent leather or well-polished Oxfords. Regardless, no well-worn black shoes that have seen better days. When in doubt, go out and buy a new pair.
Remember, the difference between a tuxedo and a regular suit is the presence of dark satin. It will always be on the lapel facings, but sometimes on the pockets or down the trouser legs. When choosing your bow tie, you want to try and match this color and texture of satin as closely as possible.
Speaking of neck wear, can you wear a neck tie in lieu of a bow tie? Well…maybe. Ten years ago, I think the answer was a firm no. But today, and certainly depending on the event, you might be OK wearing a neck tie to a black tie event. To improve your odds of pulling it off, it should be the best one that you own: a high quality silk with an excellent knot and dimple.
Now let’s turn our attention to accessories. Traditionally, a white pocket square is worn with black tie and is square folded. However, if you’d like to show just a little bit of style, I encourage my clients to find a black and white patterned silk pocket square and to use a soft puff fold.
And keep your accessories to a minimum. Part of what makes a tuxedo so freaking awesome is its simplicity. When you wear things like collar bars, beaded bracelets, great big watches, and so on, I think it starts to dilute the aesthetic a bit.
Before we move on, there’s one subcategory I want to address…
Festive black-tie attire
I don’t come across this dress code too often, but it is out there. In the Denver area, I’ve seen it most commonly among charity fundraisers and art-related events.
It’s still black tie, so you will need to wear a tuxedo, but you do have some latitude in the color and accessories. Remember, a tuxedo is defined purely by the presence of satin. So as long as you have satin on your lapel facings, you’re good to go. But feel free to wear a colorful bow tie or pocket square. In fact, you can even play with the color of your tuxedo. Burgundy, paisley, and perhaps even ivory, might be fun options for you to try.
Formal / black tie optional
This is a bit of a wishy-washy description of a dress code, isn’t it? But the key thing to know if you read this on an invitation is that the occasion is indeed formal.
So, if you own a great looking tuxedo, wear it. It’s a safe bet that there won’t be many men dressed in a tuxedo, but that’s not a bad thing. You’ll be adhering to the dress code and looking sharp. And not all men own a tuxedo (or want to go out and rent one) so here’s what you can wear instead: a dark suit with a white dress shirt and nice tie.
Stick to a dark navy or charcoal. If you own a suit close to black, even better. Wear your best looking white dress shirt and a nice tie. Regarding the neck tie, leave your striped ties at home (these are better for the office) and wear something in a solid or paisley. If you’ve been waiting for an occasion to wear a French cuff dress shirt with cuff links, now is your chance!
Save your lighter colored suits like your greys and tans at home. These hues are better suited for the day time and are therefore, a little less dressy.
I know you’ve seen this one on an invite before! It’s super common among workplace events and networking occasions. Sometimes you’ll see it called semi-formal.
Generally speaking, a jacket and nice pair of dress pants will check the box.
However, business casual is interpreted differently in different offices and cities across the country. Here in the Denver area, denim with a button-up dress shirt, or even a polo shirt, is considered business casual. In other places, the only difference you might see between semi-formal and formal might be that you can wear a lighter colored suit, and still wear a tie.
Here’s what I recommend: wear a more casual suit or sport coat, but wear a neck tie or add a pocket square.
This is a fun one, and a category of dress code that unfortunately, most men don’t take full advantage of.
Whether it’s a networking event or office holiday party, the whole idea here is to dress sharp in a relaxed way. And this doesn’t mean just wearing what you wore to the office!
Wear a jacket, whether that’s a solid blazer or a fun sportcoat. Then pair with shined shoes and a pocket square.
Not everyone will be wearing a jacket, but that’s because they haven’t read this article! Events calling for the dress code of cocktail attire tend to happen in the evening which calls for darker fabrics. But odds are that this type of event is a little sexier and more relaxed than something formal or business casual. So, feel free to lose the tie and wear an off-white or colored dress shirt.
In the winter time, an awesome look (read: awesome) is to wear a turtleneck under a dark blazer. It’s a knock out look that’s always in style.
Finally, I like to recommend a pocket square for some color and some sartorial intrigue. And shined shoes just tend to elevate any look, even if you’re wearing denim.
I hope that this article helped to shed some light on the different categories of dress code for men. I think the key thing to remember here is that there’s no such thing as overdressing. That is, when in doubt, just dress a little better.
And dress codes like Festive Black Tie and Cocktail Attire are a lot of fun because you can really think outside the box. So long as you’re doing a decent job with the fundamentals (the jacket, the shoes, the pants, etc), you can really express yourself with some of the accessories like the pocket square or cuff links.
Questions on any of this? Feel free to shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuxedo image courtesy of Rachel Gomez Photography.
Blue suit image: From the Hip Photo