Decoding dress codes: what to wear for formal, casual & more

Published on 22 June 2018
by ASI Team
Category: Style

March 2021

What are the different types of dress codes?

Black tie? Cocktail? Semi-formal? Smart casual? Navigating dress codes can be down-right confusing, not to mention when you throw in modern (made-up) dress codes like boho-chic, razzle-dazzle or fancy garden party into the mix! No matter how vague or confusing the dress code may seem you can’t go wrong if you stick to the basics. From black tie to business casual, formal to cocktail, we have rounded up the only five dress codes that count. Oh, and we also took the liberty of decoding them for you, you’re welcome.

Black Tie Events

Black Tie is the epitome of formal. Think dapper dudes rocking tuxedos and bow ties with ladies dressed in floor-length gowns. This is as luxe as it gets, in fact, most black tie events don’t allow cocktail-length dresses or suits without jackets and ties.

Black tie dress code for women

A full-length gown is a must for the ladies at a black tie function. If you’re going to risk going shorter, keep it below the knee and make sure your dress is well-designed and something along the lines of Alex Perry’s version below. Pair your look with some exquisite jewellery, considered makeup and hair, and a killer pair of heels. A black-tie event is an opportunity to break out your fanciest full-length gown, so why wouldn’t you? A floor length dress also makes it easier to achieve a more formal look without having to drop the big bucks. Keep styling sophisticated and minimal, let the sleek gown speak for itself.

Black tie dress code for men

Black tie calls for you to break out your best ‘Bond’ look. There is a time and a place for chinos and a black tie event is absolutely not it. Stick to a tuxedo and bow tie combo. This should go without saying, but under no circumstances can you ditch the suit jacket or the tie for a black tie event. Dark suits are usually an acceptable alternative if you don’t own a tux, but we’d suggest double checking with the host, especially if it’s a wedding or ball. If you aren’t a fan of bow ties, opt for a simple black or white skinny tie, try to skip trendy colours and patterns. This is one event where you are not expected to match your tie to your date’s dress, keep it simple.

Formal Events

Also known as Black Tie optional events

The more casual cousin of black tie, but dressier than cocktail, formal can be a very confusing dress code. Mostly, for formal events you can still go for a floor-length gown and a tux, but you can also freely wear a statement cocktail dress or a three-piece suit and tie. However, we’d still advise against anything too short or ditching your ties and suit jackets. Formal is still, well, formal after all.

What to wear to a formal event


You can wear a floor length evening gown, but no one will think twice if you choose to wear a cocktail dress. You can also have a little more fun with a formal dress code, why not try a tux-style pantsuit? Androgynous dressing is in, and we love it. You can also go for a bold pattern, bright colour or a striking silhouette.


Stick to classic and elegant suits with a white shirt, simple tie and dress shoes. Or if you want to add some flair, try a coloured or patterned pocket square, or a lavish pair of cufflinks. You can get away with a coloured suit, but we’d suggest sticking to a navy or grey. Keep the bright colours for cocktail and daytime events.

Cocktail Events

Also known as Semi-Formal or ‘after five’

Break out your party dresses, bold ties, and sports jackets, because cocktail dress codes mean you get to have a little more fun with your outfits. Traditionally cocktail refers to a knee-length party dress, but nowadays it’s one of the more flexible and popular dress codes.

Cocktail dress code for women

Go for something flirty, fierce and fabulous; the sky is your limit when it comes to cocktail. Bold prints, colours and sleek cuts are encouraged, as well as trendy accessories. Try a chic long skirt and crop combo, or give a knee-length bandage dress a whirl. A flowing, floral print or an embroidered mini will turn heads at a daytime event.

Cocktail dress code for men

Guys are still encouraged to wear a lounge suit. However, you can break out the chinos for cocktail events. And in some cases, you can even lose the tie. Go for a crisp white shirt, neutral pants and a sports jacket, or try a pair of navy chinos with a complimentary jacket. A pocket square is a fun alternative to a tie, and you can get away with a pair of loafers or boat shoes instead of dress shoes.

Business Events

Also known as Office Appropriate or Business Casual

Business casual is become increasingly popular, even outside the office. But it can be a tricky one, especially if you’re on the hunt for something that can take you from 9 to after 5 with ease. Business causal is professional attire, which isn’t a full uniform or overly formal. It usually involves pencil skirts or slim fit work pants and button-down shirts.

Business casual dress code for women

Go for something a little more on the conservative side that you would still feel comfortable grabbing a drink in for knock-offs. We’d suggest open-collared shirts and sweaters with a pencil skirt and tailored pants. Dresses are fine too, as long as they’re subtle and not too short. Hemlines should be kept at knee-length or just above, and colours should be muted or neutral. Heels should be kept to a sensible height and closed-toe pumps are usually the best choice. A nice pair of flats are also appropriate.

Business formal dress code for women

Business formal is similar to business casual, but as the name suggests it’s a little more dressy. Think a tailored dress with a structured blazer; something you would wear for an important business presentation. Try a matching power suit, or a dress and blazer which is on trend right now and also a statement combo.

Business event dress code for men

Men have it pretty easy when it comes to business attire. All you need is a simple dress shirt with a pair of suit pants or nice chinos. Style with a plain belt and a pair of dressy loafers, RM Williams boots or business shoes. You can rock a matching suit jacket or go for a trench coat for the cooler months. As long as you look smart and polished, you’ll nail business casual. For Business formal, go for a classic, black, grey or navy lounge suit with a white business shirt. A tie may be optional depending on your office workplace.

Casual Events

Although activewear has become more and more acceptable for everyday activities, it doesn’t mean you can rock up in your gym clothes when the dress code is casual. And depending on the event, casual can have a few different meanings. Causal for a wedding or a party usually means a floaty dress or a nice skirt and top. This can often be the dress code for garden or beach weddings. Whereas casual for a work event or friends birthday could mean jeans, heels and a dressy top, or a playful skirt and sweater. There are a few different variations of causal, and if the host doesn’t state semi or dressy casual it will be up to you to figure out the level of dressy. Consider the venue, attendees and scale of the event.

Smart casual dress code for women

For birthdays, work events, casual Fridays etc, stick to a great pair of well-fitting jeans or pants, with dressy tops and heels or boots. Aim for laid back but presentable and don’t forget, even a simple pair of black jeans and white tee combo can be elevated with the right jewellery and a killer pair of pumps. Get creative and have fun with it.

Semi casual dress code for women

If it’s semi or dressy casual, think skirts with t-shirts, jumpers or camis, or shorter, not too extravagant dresses. In some cases, you may even be able to get away with chucking on your favourite pair of tennis shoes or sneakers for a sports-luxe vibe. Keep in mind accessories and shoes can be game changers when it comes to casual wear. A ‘dressy’ dress can be played down with boots and leather jacket.

Smart and semi casual dress code for men

Casual for guys can mean anything from slacks with button downs, to chinos or jeans with t-shirts and shirts. When in doubt you can’t go wrong with a pair of chinos and button down, or tee with a jacket. Depending on the event you may be able to wear sneakers (to a BBQ for example). But for anything at a venue, we’d suggest boat shoes or loafers.

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