people raising wine glass in selective focus photography

What to wear to any party, from casual to cocktail attire

As if choosing what to wear every day was not difficult enough, you now have to distinguish between “casual chic” and “festive cocktail attire.”

Derek Guillemette, the former director for ready-to-wear at Rent the Runway, says that hosts are being so inventive with dress codes that guests are left scratching. Customers often ask their personal stylists for advice on which styles are best suited to their dress codes. It’s not just women who are confused, but men as well.

This handy guide will help you and your partner dress up for any occasion.

Black Tie

You can think of formal wear and elegant details.

  • For Women

Tea-length or floor-length gowns are the best choice for formal events such as weddings, charity galas and awards ceremonies. You can be a star for the evening in stunning satin, taffeta or beaded gowns. Guillemette suggests a column in Hepburn’s style or an A-line with red, navy or emerald that stands out from the black and compliments many skin tones.

He suggests that accessories include a necklace or earrings with dramatic designs, but not both. If in doubt, choose time-honored classics like pearl necklaces or diamond drops over anything too costumey. An evening bag is essential. You should invest in one metallic clutch, which can be dressed up or down to suit your style for all of your events.

Be aware of fishtails and trains (no one wants a trip at a black tie holiday gala), loud prints (rethink your cheetah gown), and body-conscious style (save them to A Night at The Roxbury). Tara Guerard of Soiree in Charleston, South Carolina says that the South has strict rules regarding black tie attire and decorum reigns supreme. Pay attention to not spilling from necklines or slits.

  • For Men

A black bow tie and tuxedo. Guillemette advises, “Make it a tie and not a clip-on.” You can rent or purchase a trendy notch-, peak- or peak-lapel jacket that has one or two buttons. On the West Coast, more men can wear dark suits and are able to dress more casually.

Cocktail attire

Semiformal is the best choice for cocktail attire. You can wear a stylish party dress and great heels.

  • For women

Catherine Loose is Style-Architects’ director of fashion. Style-Architects is a Minneapolis styling and event-planning company. Rich fabrics such as velvet, chiffon and lace can give the black an extra dimension and texture. Keep the hemline at least two inches above your knees. Stand with your hands at your sides to check if your hemline has fallen too low.

There are many colors you can choose from: jewel tones, icy pastels and even whites can all be elegantly paired with simple silhouettes. You can also splash out on dressy separates, such as brocade cigarette trousers topped with a beadedshell. No matter what style you choose fancy shoes are mandatory. You will be more graceful on the dance floor if your heels are higher than normal (even if there are two of you).

  • For men

You should be dashing but also timeless. Wear a dark suit, which is a more tailored and toned down version of a tuxedo. This is what makes it different from what you would wear at the boardroom,” Guillemette says.

Keep it simple: A white shirt, dark tie and black cap-toe Oxfords. Dress shoes can be given a polished finish by giving them a good shine.

Festive attire

Also known as holiday attire or dress-to impress. It is used to describe bringing the razzle-dazzle.

  • For women

Guillemette states that bright colors, bold jewelry and sparkling details are signs you’re up for having a great time. This dress code is often displayed on holiday party invitations. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to wear jingle bell earrings. Elaine Swann, a San Diego lifestyle and etiquette expert, recommends that you go all out with sophisticated jewelry and a bright dress. She also suggests pairing a jacquard skirt and silky blouse. You can add more joy to your outfit with bold accents such as a bib necklace and red pumps. Loose says that freezing temperatures shouldn’t dampen your style. “In the Midwest, women layer with a jewel-embellished, opaque, and bootie-heeled cardigan.” A statement coat is a must-have.

  • For men

Eric Himel, a stylist based in Los Angeles, says “Go for a playful atmosphere with a velvet jacket or a classic suit with fun ties.” However, “fun” does not have to be adorned with candy canes. You can also search for holiday-colored stripes and a tartan. Do you prefer to get rid of the traditional Windsor knot? Gray flannel trousers can be paired with a green cashmere sweater or colored corduroys with open-collar shirts and a tweed sports jacket.

Dressy resort

A dressy resort is associated with island chic and garden parties, so it’s not uncommon to see it on outdoor wedding invitations. You can be easy and breezy, but still have a touch elegance.

  • For Women

You should balance fashion and functionality. Swann suggests that you slip on a comfy maxi dress, a flowing sundress or a cute shift with bright jewelry. Mindy Lockard, an expert in etiquette in Portland, Oregon, suggests that you wear an exotic print if you are celebrating in a tropical location. You might also want to tuck a flower into your hair. You can ditch your heels for a beach wedding, rustic rehearsal dinner or alfresco luncheon. They will sink into the sand and grass. For the occasion, gold wedges, sandals with beads, or ballet flats with embellishments are all appropriate. You can choose white or a color that highlights the natural surroundings, such as yellow, coral, or blue, instead of black.

  • For Men

Don’t wear a tie and a serious jacket. Himel suggests that you “choose an ivory, tan, or a pale shirt with white trousers, loafers and no socks” instead. For country clubs, you can switch to classic preppy style: khakis with a pastel oxford shirt and a sport jacket.

Business attire

You would wear business attire to an interview.

  • For women

Wall Street is the best choice for work dinners, company parties and networking events. This means either a simple, neutral suit or sheath gown. Lockard suggests that you look to Jackie O. as an inspiration. Although this is not the right time to experiment with the latest cuts or the hottest color, you might want to add texture to your outfit with a metallic or variegated Boucle jacket or skirt. You can dress up your casual office look by wearing a skirt instead of pants and a blouse over a tee. It’s fine to bring your daily bag in this instance.

For work holiday parties, you can loosen up and add a little sparkle or color. Keep your hemline at the knee and your neckline low.

  • For men

A navy or gray suit is the best. Himel says black is too funereal and maitre d’-ish. You can also use a dark chalk-stripe, or windowpane pattern. A natty tie, white or pale-blue dress shirt and polished brown shoes are all acceptable.

Smart Casual

Smart casual can be described as just casual, dressy casual, or casual chic. Denim and diamonds are examples of a dress-up/dress down hybrid.

  • For women

A weekend staple can be paired with something more glamorous, such as jeans with a bow blouse, heeled boots or ornate flats. For a polished look, choose a deep indigo rinse or a sophisticated pattern or a saturated color like cobalt or oxblood. Add some polish to your look with a blazer or edgy earrings. A floral shift or tailored pants with a bright cardigan are good options, especially for daytime functions like a bridal shower.

You can be bolder in a jumpsuit or pants printed with bold colors if you’re attending a girls’ evening out or dinner party. What do you do with dress codes that mysteriously refer to “chic” as other words? This could be “California chic,” or “city chic,” or “jet-set chic.” Lockard suggests that you go above and beyond if you feel lost. “Being overdressed indicates you have put in effort. Being underdressed could be seen as disrespectful.”

  • For men

Loose says, “Aim to go out on a date–no suits nor ties.” Wear a tailored oxford shirt and flat-front chinos, or sleek wool trousers. Dark denim is a good choice if you’re looking for something more casual than a lounge atmosphere.

Casual (aka Come as You are)

You can keep it simple and casual, but you should consider adding some style to your outfit with yoga pants.

  • For women

You may be hearing your host say, “We’re easygoing.” You can just relax and let the host know that you are not stressed about it. Loose says that it is worth applying a little makeup to make you look more professional. It’s a good idea to wear something you would wear for lunch with your friends, such as striped jeans and ballet flats. You can wear Converse sneakers, jeans, and other cute kicks to any occasion, such as a barbecue at the backyard, an open house with neighbors, or a get together with your kids. You can also take the host’s lead. You can follow the host’s lead and wear a simple jersey dress with boots or skimmers if she is well-dressed. You shouldn’t wear gym clothes like sweats and graphic tees.

  • For men

Clean, unwrinkled everyday clothes. The bar is very low. You can wear a Henley, a button-down or a Henley with jeans, or shorts in summer. The footwear, whether sneakers or boots, should be stylish and well-kept to elevate the entire look.

What does “Black Tie Optional” Really mean?

If an invitation states that a particular style of dress is “optional” (or “preferred”), the host is clearly stating their preference but still allowing for flexibility. Mindy Lockard, an etiquette consultant, says that it means “This is what you’d like me to wear,” so if you already have it, you can wear it or the next best thing. This does not mean that you should go out and buy a new dress.

Tara Guerard, event planner, said that black tie-optional events will have a lot of hemlines below the knee. If you choose to go shorter, your dress should be award-winning. A dark, formal suit with a tie and a black tie can be worn by men in lieu of a tuxedo.

What if there is no dress code on the invitation?

These are five options to help you decide what to wear when there is no dress code.

  1. Ask the host: If there is no indication on what the guest is wearing, it is a good idea to ask her. If you are uncomfortable doing this, you will have to do some detective work. You can work with your friends to come up with a dress code you all agree on. It’s always better to overdress when in doubt.
  2. Examine the invitation: If it is printed on card stock or letterpress, then the host has likely spent time and money to invite guests. Recognize her efforts by giving her a dress or cocktail dress. Because they can be extravagant or simple, store-bought cards can be more difficult to read. So search for other clues (see below). Look out for clues in the design or the wording when dealing with e-vites, which can be sent even for weddings.
  3. Pay attention to the theme: If you are participating in an annual charity event, look at what has been documented online. Respect religious ceremonies like Bar Mitzvahs or baptisms with a more conservative attire.
  4. Pay attention to the Time: Parties after 5 p.m. are considered more formal, while daytime functions are often more casual.
  5. Find the location: A party at someone’s home will be more casual than one at a venue. If the party is at a restaurant or catering hall, you can browse the website to find out its chichi factor. Outdoor events are more casual than indoor ones. Country club protocol favors sundresses over jeans (though sometimes white jeans can be acceptable, so double-check your decision before you go).
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