Dress Code Decoded

You probably have seen the words Dress Code before, and probably these terms before as well. Wedding invites, employee handbooks, fine dining recommendations or regulations, but what does it all mean. This article will help define the terms associated with the term “Dress Code.”

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary a dress code is “a set of rules about what clothing may and may not be worn at a school, office, restaurant, etc.” In general, for men’s clothing, dress codes are divided up into six categories: Casual, Business Casual, Business, Cocktail Attire, Black Tie, and White Tie. Sometimes Black Tie is referred to semi-formal and yet sometimes Business is referred to semi-formal. Some people even refer to Business attire as formal and Business Casual attire as semi-formal; this is just completely wrong. Traditionally, White Tie is known as formal, and Black Tie as semi-formal, and of course there is the Black Tie Optional as well but I will get into that later. The confusion has come about from the misuse of the terms. For most, the most formal they will get is in a Black Tie tuxedo. But from all of this came the use of White Tie and Black Tie to help hash out the differences.

Now let’s dive in and analyze each one in close detail.


Casual clothing is what some would call jeans and a tee-shirt; others would put such clothing into an even lower category that I have heard being called “Ultra Casual” or “Uber Casual.” Nevertheless this is the category that one would wear things like: chinos, denim, polos, button-downs, tee-shirts, shorts, boat shoes, sneakers and other casual shoes. Vary rarely would you see a sport coat or blazer in this category. Some may consider workout clothing and clothing they do household chores in this category, this would be an incorrect assumption.

Business Casual

Clothing in this category should be what you normally see around the office, on a relax day. Casual tie or no tie, use of a sport coat or blazer, dress khakis or other dress trousers, dress shirts of various patterns or solid colors, maybe a polo (traditionally a sport shirt) under a jacket, dressier shoes – brogues, loafers, various colors. Sometimes you may see the sad sight of a lonely tie – a dress shirt with a tie but no jacket. It is not that the wearer has draped his jacket on a hanger or over a chair, he just doesn’t wear one – this is traditionally seen as a big No, and unless you want to look like generic background character number 13, I would advise in pairing it up with a blazer or sport coat. This category of clothing is not appropriate for closing a deal in, or tending a board meeting. And depending on the job, it is defiantly not interview worthy, (unless that is all you have. Better than nothing).


This is not “semi-formal.” Regardless of what I may have said earlier, this is not semi-formal nor is it formal. Here you will only find suits, which are jackets with matching trousers but I bet you already knew that. Now suits have different levels of formality to them as well. Lighter colors, fabrics like linen and cotton, patterns like black and white glen plaid would all be considered on the lest formal ranks. But wait I said this isn’t formal or semi-formal, that is correct those terms will be explained in the next two categories. More formal suits would be dark, micro patterns or solid colors. Navy, Charcoal, Dark Grey, are all on the formal end, perfect for interviews and board meetings, etc. Black suits are only, and I repeat, Only for funerals… OK maybe you can wear one in a pinch or if you want that Yakuza look, but they are best to have one reserved for funerals.

Three piece suits, ones with a matching waistcoat (don’t wear a belt), are on the more formal end of that pattern/color. Wearing one for an interview may not be wise, as it may give an impression of too formal. Use of the Odd waistcoat is a fun idea, and a way to add some spice to your daily routine. Some may view it as a way to turn down the formality of a suit as well. Example: paring a navy suit with a green or brown vest would be a good way of lowering the formality of the navy, but keeping the formality of a vest.

Along the lines of shoes, dark conservative, mainly black are advisable, though you can get away with brown. But when in doubt, go with a plane toe or cap toe oxford or derby shoe.

Cocktail Attire

What is this odd term? Does it pertain to just cocktail parties, which may be few and far between now these days? Sadly, from my own experiences this term was not used much because people do not know what it means, but now these due to more articles etc. more people want to use this term. Hell there was a time I did not know what it meant. But let’s remind any misconceptions or preconceived notions and overall ignorance of the term. Supposedly this term came into popular use in the early 1900s to emphasize the formality of the event without going full out black tie or white tie; which are terms discussed later in this article. Most men should not have a problem fulfilling the simple requirements of this dress code. This dress code can be, or better yet should be found on most wedding invitations. In general, for cocktail attire men should wear a dark or medium grey suit, charcoal or navy is also acceptable especially if the event occurs or goes into the night. Simple patterns would be OK for this dress code. This is not a tuxedo situation, that would be overdressed. As for the dress shirt, it is better to err on the safe side and go with a white or muted color, micro neutral patterns can work, but stay away from loud bold patterns and colors. Neckties should be conservative, patterns are fine as long as, like the shirt, they are not too bold and loud. Pocket square is a good additive, however try not to match your tie, this is an opportunity to add another color into your ensemble. But when in doubt match your shirt color; it gives you a clean James Bond finesse. Black dress shoes would be essential; any other color would just be too casual understate the formality of the event. And of course socks that match your trousers or shoes or even something else in your outfit if you want a little extra color for fun. Just be careful. If you know the event is more on the causal, informal end of the spectrum you may be able to get away with a blazer and odd trouser if you don’t want to suit up. You might possibly be able to pull out your velvet blazer for the more casual scenarios, especially if you are the host of the party. In addition, if the event leans more casual that’s when you can get away with some more bolder looks, remember it is still safer to err on the conservative spectrum.

Black Tie (Semi-Formal)

Tuxedo aka dinner jacket with matching trousers. Traditional is better in this category. Black is the color… navy or midnight blue are also equally good alternatives. There is very little room to play here so I will first go with the staple look. Satin Peaked or Shawl Lapel, notched is too much of a business suit. Single button on a single breasted jacket, or a 6×2 button double breasted jacket. Jetted pockets, no flaps (you can cheat and slide the flaps inside the pockets if the company who made your tuxedo is smart enough to put the satin on both side of the opening of the pocket). A satin strip going down the side of the pants. You can sport a pocket square but it is safe to go with white. Your bowtie should be the same color as your cummerbund or vest, which should be black and satin at that. Never ever, ever, wear a belt. Your pants should have side tabs adjusters or you should wear suspenders (or braces), and you should always wear a cummerbund or vest, this is no other option on this. A white, bone, or off-white coat with navy or black trousers is reserved for hotter weather climates. If you don’t follow that you will look under dress and your tuxedo would look cheap.

If the dress code says black tie optional, it is not too hard to figure out that means you can wear a tuxedo or you can wear cocktail attire. In this case, one of those odd, trendy tuxedos (i.e. the long neck tie ensembles or even a velvet jacket etc.) could possibly pass but it is better sick to safer conservative looks.

White Tie (Formal, or Full Dress)

If you get invited to an event that requires this, congratulations. In turn, this is probably the strictest of dress codes; don’t even think of trying to be bold and flamboyant in this situation. There is no open to interpretation for this code at all. So here is the breakdown: White bow tie, white shirt with wing collar, white waist coat deep cut, black coat with tails and peaked satin lapel, black matching pants with satin stripe, black silk over the calf socks, and black patent leather oxford plan toe shoes or patent leather opera pumps. What if it is cold outside? Well there are rules for that too in the White Tie code. A simple overcoat won’t due, something like a Paletot may work but you want to have something of equal prestige as your white tie outfit, but if you are pressed a simple double breasted or single breasted overcoat like the chesterfield (yes you can go with navy) will do just fine; you can also throw on a white silk scarf with tassels if you want. If you want to be bold but not out of place a cape (yeah I said a cape) will work as well. Some options you can add if you want, white pocket square, top hat (for outerwear), white gloves, white boutonniere. Anything else or anything different is not white tie apocopate. Make sure your proportions and measurements are correct; waistcoat should be long enough to cover you belt line and better to be cut along the lines of your jacket. One man who brought his A game to a white tie event was Tom Ford at the 2014 MET Ball & Gala.


This image is what you should strive for: Tom Ford at the MET Ball & Gala May 5, 2014. (it may be on the tighter end but still everything seems to be on the mark).