What to wear when you're given a dress code

Has an ambiguous dress code got you stumped? An etiquette expert and a stylist decode the trickiest 'what to wear' events in your social calendar.

We love an excuse to get dolled up, but an invitation ambiguously calling for 'black tie optional' is anxiety-inducing enough to have us staying at home on the couch instead.

Fortunately, our sartorial specialists - fashion stylist Donny Galella and Zarife Hardy, director of the Australian School of Etiquette - are on hand to help you nail the dress code for any occasion.

If you're hosting an event, should you specify a dress code?

The stylist: If you’re putting out an invite, it's very important to always give some sort of guidance or advice on the dress code. It reduces the stress of wondering what to wear.

The etiquette expert: Yes, it's particularly useful for women. We always like to know if it's a dress-up or casual event and it's a horrible feeling to be very under-dressed.

Dress code: Smart casual

The stylist: You can definitely get away with wearing jeans, it’s just about dressing them up. Steer away from the overly ripped or distressed denim styles and go for a classic pair and dress them up.

For women, you can't go wrong with the simple combination of jeans with a classic blazer in black, navy or check - which is very on-trend - with a nice shirt and maybe a pair of heels. You could also wear a simple dress with some accessories to bring the outfit from casual to smart casual, like a nice pair of heels, handbag, earrings or a bit of bling.

For men, wear a nice pair of jeans with a fresh shirt and blazer

The etiquette expert: For men, I suggest nice trousers or very smart jeans and a polo or button-up shirt. For women, fitted pants, quality jeans or a knee-length skirt with a blouse or top. You can get away with jeans but they must be dark, well-fitted and smart.

Dress code: Black-tie optional

The stylist: It’s hinting towards black-tie and it’s always better to overdress than underdress. If you arrive at the event and feel overdressed, you can always remove an accessory, but I’d dress as though as I'm attending a black-tie function. Men can go for a tie instead of a bow tie and ladies should wear a gown or a midlength dress.

The etiquette expert: This dress code is a little confusing but I'd suggest always dressing up. For men, black tie optional means a tuxedo isn’t required, but the event is still formal enough for one to be appropriate.

For ladies, opt for a long dress, dressy separates or a formal cocktail dress. One of the most important rules for women to remember is the length of the dress, which should never be above the knee.

Occasion: A wedding with no specified dress code

The stylist: If you receive an invitation without a dress code, it’s perfectly fine to ask the host what you should be wearing. Generally, don’t wear anything too risqué, too sexy or revealing. Although we are seeing a lot more all-white weddings at the moment, where guests are actually asked to dress in white, you should avoid wearing this shade unless the invite specifically says to. However black at a modern wedding is totally fine.

The etiquette expert: I would always ask the hosts what the dress code expectation is, but you should always dress up. For ladies, a lovely dress that comes to the knee or a pair of tailored pants and a blouse. For gents, a pair of pants and a collared shirt, plus a jacket for the ceremony, is perfect.

Definitely don't wear white, ivory or anything loud and garish - the day is about the bride and all eyes should be on her. When it comes to colours, anything but black is fine. And remember, it's a wedding - not a night out - so revealing clothing like skimpy tops, mini-skirts and exposed bra straps are inappropriate.

Occasion: A job interview

The stylist: For job interviews in general, you want to project confidence, and colour helps you do this. If you’re feeling a bit nervous, try wearing some bright, bold colours, even if it’s just a splash.

For a creative role, you should steer away from looking corporate but still be smart. Men could wear chinos, a nice crisp shirt and maybe some fun socks. It's about showing you’re creative but still professional.

For a corporate role, you should definitely wear corporate attire like a tailored suit and trousers or skirt with a business shirt. To inject some personality, try wearing a nice pair of fashion frames if you wear glasses or a stylish pair of earrings.

The etiquette expert: Communication is 93% non-verbal so the way you dress, speak and behave sets a very strong tone. When interviewing at a casual workplace, check their website to see what staff are wearing and dress similarly. It's always better to be overdressed.

I always recommend wearing a jacket to an interview. It could be a relaxed deconstructed jacket, but a jacket always sets a respectable smart tone. For women, dressy pants with a top, shirt or blouse, or a fitted dress is best. Avoid anything revealing and I would never wear jeans to a job interview. 

Corporate attire is a must in a corporate workplace and I recommend sticking to a conservative look, particularly for a job interview. If you really wanted to add a splash of personality then do so with one of your accessories, but you don’t want to be judged on your outfit or ornaments.

Occasion: Cocktail party

The stylist: Have fun with it! A cocktail dress is easy, but you could also do a suit: The two-piece pantsuit with a matching jacket and pants is a big trend at the moment. Velvet is also trending, so you could try a velvet two-piece suit.

Flat shoes are also fine to wear to a cocktail event - like metallic brogues or embellished flats, teamed with some over-the-top earrings, jewellery or a pop of lip colour and a metallic clutch. Ultimately, it’s about showing you've made some effort.

The etiquette expert: You could wear a cocktail dress, a knee-length skirt or tailored pants with a formal top or blouse. For men, a dark suit (with or without a tie), dress pants, a dress shirt and jacket is appropriate.

Occasion: A company celebration at a bar in town

The stylist: I'd keep it in the vein of smart casual. Polished but adding your personality by wearing some colour and nice accessories.

The etiquette expert: Don’t wear a wild, crazy outfit meant for a club night, or anything revealing, super casual or too cool. It's still a work event regardless of the location, so smart work clothing is appropriate. If you like, you can jazz it up a little with a more glamorous jacket or handbag.

Occasion: An informal dinner party at the house of your new partner's closest friends

The stylist: I think it’s important to make a great first impression, so dress up a little bit. It’s a casual occasion, but you want to put some thought and effort into it. Go smart casual and after you’ve arrived, you can remove your jacket or blazer. The first three seconds when you meet someone is when you make that first impression, so make it count.

The etiquette expert: Always dress up, I would recommend a smart casual look, like dark denim jeans with a lovely blouse, dressy pants and a top or dress. Men can also wear dark denim jeans, polo t-shirt or oxford button-down shirt. But definitely no t-shirts, ripped or frayed jeans, anything revealing or super high heels. And no activewear!

Occasion: A religious ceremony, like a christening

The stylist: It depends where and when it is, but I'd stick to smart casual. For women, knee-length or longer dresses would work and men can wear a casual lounge suit.

The etiquette expert: These are very special events for which you should always dress up: No jeans and nothing revealing or very casual. For women, opt for a smart knee-length dress, dress pants or skirts to the knee with a blouse, top or shirt. Gentleman should also wear a jacket.

Occasion: A funeral

The stylist: I wear dark colours because I’m traditional, but for some funerals you’re encouraged to wear colours, such as the favourite colour of the person who has passed away. But unless you've been given a specified dress code, keep it dark and neutral.

The etiquette expert: Black is most appropriate for a funeral and is a sign of respect. This is another occasion for which one should wear smart clothing, like dress pants with a respectful top or a black dress to the knee. Don't wear bright colours unless it has been written on the invite, very casual clothing or revealing clothing.

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