We’ve all been there. You receive the invite, slide it out curiously from the smooth envelope, and hold the stiff and sturdy card with pretty cursive writing sprawled across it. Reception at 6pm. Dinner at 7. It all seems delightfully straightforward.

That is, until you reach the bottom of the invite (whether you received it in a physical envelope or it pinged into your LINE as an e-vite), and there are the small, mysterious words: “Dress code: be chic”. And just like that, we’re feeling just a little less keen on this dinner.

Dress codes can be the worst. If we’re being asked to ‘be chic’, does that suggest we might usually be dressed terribly? Can we wear a knee-length dress for an ‘elegant’ coded event? And what, for the last time, does ‘cocktail attire’ actually mean? Dress codes are intended to be helpful guides for guests, but more often they turn out to be a source of much uncertainty. Nobody wants to turn up looking majorly over-dressed or under-dressed. Even if you’re wanting to stand out at a party, you’d want to stand out in a good way rather than be a Jonah Hill in the midst of a crowd of Met-Gala Madonnas (or vice versa). In order to prevent that from happening, and to help clear things up a little with some visual examples, here’s our ultimate guide to decoding some commonly seen — and commonly misunderstood — dress codes.

[Feature image: Roberta Silve/Unsplash. Hero image: Jason Briscoe/Unsplash.]

Black Tie

For women: Floor length dress

For men: Black tuxedo with bowtie or tie

The most formal of dress codes (there are hardly any white tie events anymore these days), ‘black tie’ calls for your Sunday best. In many ways, this is the most straightforward dress code and the easiest to get right. The difficult part is in the details — be sure to match your lovely floor length dress with appropriately formal jewellery (no Wonderfruit beads) and a neat hairdo.

Foolproof outfit:

dress-codes-milin-dress
Credit: Milin.

Dress from Milin.

Formal

For women: Midi-maxi dresses, no cleavage

For men: Suit and tie, but not tuxedo

Also known as ‘Elegant attire’ or ‘Black tie optional’ (the latter meaning nobody will be wearing black tie, so don’t) — formal dress codes are one of the trickiest to get right. In strange ways, ‘formal’ events tend to be more conservative than ‘black tie’ events, even if a floor-length gown or tuxedo isn’t mandatory. The key idea for this dress code is propriety — no cleavage, no excessively revealing backs, nothing your aunt would shake her head at.

Foolproof outfit:

dress-codes-chloe-dress
Credit: Chloé.

Dress from Chloé.

Cocktail

For women: Any length dress except for floor-length or ridiculously short. Dressy playsuits and jumpsuits acceptable.

For men: Lounge suits (shirt, jacket, no tie) — preferably in lighter colours than black.

Fun, dressy, and relaxed all at the same time — dress codes calling for ‘Cocktail attire’ are quite possibly the best ones. Dresses can be lifted up to above the knee but, come on ladies, let’s keep it classy. Some dressy playsuits and jumpsuits would also work well if paired with nice shoes and some jewellery. This is your chance to dress up and let loose a little, so feel free to whip out the sequin dress and or that funky tie. However, for the safest bet, opt for your best LBD and add statement earrings and great heels.

Foolproof outfit:

dress-codes-vatanika-dress
Credit: Vatanika.

Dress from Vatanika.

Smart/Business Casual

For women: Day dresses, collared shirts with trousers or no-rip jeans. Keep heels low.

For men: Collared shirts with trousers and smart jeans. Loafers, brogues, and sneakers (never chunky) are all acceptable.

Often one for group dinners or business lunches, the ‘smart casual’ dress code can cause a lot of uncertainty. The two words seem to mean the opposite of each other, which means your safest bet is to aim for the sweet spot in between. To put it simply for ladies, wear what you’re comfortable in (day dresses, pretty blouses, no-rip jeans) and just pair with some slightly formal jewellery (pearl studs never fail). Keep your heels low, but leave the flip-flops and crocs at home. Men, make sure your shirts are still collared and your sneakers aren’t chunky (yes, those Balenciaga Triple S ones are staying home).

Foolproof outfit:

dress-codes-alice-and-olivia
Credit: Alice + Olivia.

Jumpsuit from Alice + Olivia.

Come As You Are (Casual)

For women: What you would wear at home with family

For men: As above

This one’s pretty easy. Casual dress codes are basically telling you that you’d be uncomfortable in anything too dressy. However, if the person organising this get-together has even bothered to send out invites with dress codes, people are bound to come in something a little more elevated than their at-home attire. We’d advise leaving the flip-flops and boxer shorts at home, and leaning on the safe side with sneakers or Toms and anything that won’t be mistaken for underwear. 

Foolproof outfit:

Credit: Stella McCartney.

Jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers from Stella McCartney.

…And a quick guide for setting dress codes if you’re planning an event:

1. Be specific 

Avoid vague clichés. No ‘be fabulous’, not even ‘cocktail attire’, and definitely not ‘chic’. Not everybody will get it right, and you’re probably just setting up a situation for self-consciousness. Anyway, if you’re having to instruct someone to ‘be fabulous’ then you’re probably not partying with the right people.

Credit: Unsplash.

2. Make it easy

We all know that going to events and parties is enough effort as it is. If you’re asking too much with your dress codes (“fancy ranch with razzle-dazzle”), it’s likely that a lot of your guests will be making excuses not to come at all. One great example to follow for an effortless but effective dress code is the all-black #TimesUp movement during awards season last year. Everyone can join in, and everyone probably will.

3. Make it fun (but not too fun)

The most difficult part in setting dress codes is striking the right balance between being boring and being unnecessarily outrageous. Avoid Met Gala style riddles because people don’t normally have outfits at the ready for a dress code like ‘About Time: Fashion and Duration’. So, if you’re not planning a party with a bunch of Lady Gagas and Rihannas, dial it down a little; go like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and just ask your guests to wear a hat.

Karn Chatikavanij
Style Writer
A globetrotter with a love for sushi and Miu Miu, Karn is a fan of all things upbeat, delicious, and well-dressed. Her frequent activities include packing for beach trips, listening to 80s music, and trying to make daytime pyjamas happen.