We’ve all been there. You get that masterfully embossed, perfume-spritzed invitation in the mail with all the details on that fabulous party that’s just around the corner. Everything is straightforward—from the occasion to the location. One thing, however, stops you dead in your tracks. “What the ish is snappy casual?!” With each party planner trying to top the last, dress codes have become a science to decode. Fear not, my sartorially challenged friends, I have unmasked the mystery and developed a foolproof guide to help you navigate virtually any dress code dilemma.
Let’s start with…
Despite your initial nostalgia for the long-loved high school milestone (the “winter formal under the sea”), formal is not a time for powder blue leisure suits or mini shampoo bottles full of Boone’s Farm. Formal, as requested in an invitation, not only means a tuxedo but it specifically means a tuxedo with a white vest and white tie. Think Titanic, royal, and that adorable picture above of el presidente and the first diva. If you want to get real jazzy, this is the one attire where tails and a top hat would actually be acceptable. Unless you’re Mr. Peanut, those “accessories” are unacceptable elsewhere.
Semi-Formal (or Black Tie)
Formal is to the Inaugural Ball as Black Tie is to the Oscars. The most common dress code among dressy events and galas, Black Tie (also referred to as Semi-Formal) is meant to be traditional but not too dramatic. Black Tie is not a figure of speech. You have to wear a black tie and a tuxedo—no exceptions! Black tie affairs are much more about a woman’s ball gown than a man’s ensemble, but feel free to dress up your outfit with a pair of spectacular shoes, a funky hidden lining in your suit jacket or some fun and interesting cuff links. Style is all in the subtle details with this one.
Black Tie Optional (or Creative Black Tie)
Sticking with our award-show theme, Black Tie Optional is the dress code of the Gammy’s. This is a dressy experience, but one that is meant to be more fun, more irreverent and a little bit sexy. Dark suits in black and navy are more than acceptable—and often preferred. Ties are required in one form or another but can run the gamut of colors and patterns. Have a little fun with this dress code. Dare to wear a maroon slim-fit suit or a bright paisley print shirt under your black suit and black bow tie. Creative Black Tie is your chance to look like a rockstar ready for the red carpet. Seize the day!
Business/Semi-Formal (Wedding Invitation)
Business attire is pretty straightforward—it means you need to wear a suit and tie. That’s pretty much it. Not so straightforward are wedding invitations that come with the dress request of “Semi-Formal.” Fear not, nine times out of 10 this is simply the mistake of the bride (or, regrettably, often the wedding planner, who should know better) and does not mean you need to arrive in black tie. In today’s wedding attire standards, Semi-Formal means wear a suit. The good news is, at least for you casual Carls out there, you aren’t required to wear a tie to the wedding. Make sure if you don’t wear a tie that you embellish your look with a pocket square to balance the informality.
Business Casual/Dressy Casual
This is the request that probably stumps people the most. The reason I believe that business casual has been confused for so long is the fact that so many men simply lack the wardrobe to do this look correctly. In today’s working world, men often either wear full blown suits to work or much more casual options. When it comes to rocking “business casual,” they end up wearing their suit with no tie or a pair of khakis and a polo shirt, purely out of desperation. Neither one is acceptable. When working dressy casual or business casual think separates. Wear a deconstructed jacket (no lining—and don’t you dare wear your suit jacket as a blazer) with a pair of flat front chinos or slacks. This dress code always calls for a button up, but more casual cotton options are a cool alternative, as are cardigans or V-neck pullovers worn over a knit or felt tie. Long story short, dress like you are in a J.Crew or Banana Republic catalogue and you will be on the right track.
Cocktail/After 5/Smart or Snappy Casual
Cocktail and smart and snappy, oh my. All of these descriptions drive me bananas! They are all just a fancy way for saying, “Dress like you are going out for the night in Hollywood.” They could have also said, “look cool.” The idea is that this isn’t just any old night out. For any of these invitations consider that your outfit should be special. Keep things slim fit. Don’t be afraid to rock some color (like these boys above). Concentrate on accessories like pocket squares, narrow and polished belts, great watches and shoes. Don’t be the guy in just a pair of slacks and a button up—that is so boring. If you must do the button up, go for a pair of chinos in a bright color with a crisp white shirt. Don’t be afraid of a slim tie with a tie bar or even…wait for it…a turtleneck! Whatever you choose, your look must say nighttime, sexy and cool. The only way to achieve a look like that is to feel it. Try on as many outfits as it takes and pick the one that gives you swagger.
A little extra advice …
Always wear a suit to a wedding.
The tie is optional for day weddings. But for evening weddings you must wear a dark suit and a tie.
If you must rent a tuxedo, order it a full size smaller than normal.
You’ll thank me later.
When it comes to business casual, veer toward the more formal and mimic your boss.
Business Casual at Google means jeans and a button up, at a hedge fund it means a suit with no tie. At your first event go toward a more traditional look and gauge your peers.
No matter what the dress code—if it’s after 5 p.m. you need to wear dark colors.
If it’s before 5 p.m. you can wear lighter colors. See? Easy!
Wear good shoes and always keep them polished.
Sorry dude. You can’t wear your Converse with a blazer.