What Every Single Dress Code Really Means: A Complete Guide

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We’ve all been there—you receive an invitation to an event with a dress code that calls for “creative black tie”, “festive”, or “cocktail attire” for women—and suddenly you’re more confused than if the invitation had said nothing at all. Believe it or not, there are actually specific expectations behind some of the most confusing dress code suggestions.

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With that in mind, we’ve decoded some of the most common dress codes. So whether your new job suggests that employees dress in business casual attire, or you receive a wedding invitation that says “black tie optional”, we have you covered so you’ll know exactly what to wear from here on out. Because picking out an outfit should be fun, not stressful.

MORE: What to Wear to a Beach Wedding:  3 Foolproof Outfits

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DRESS CODE: BLACK TIE

This is crystal clear for men—wear a tuxedo. It’s a little more complicated for women, who can technically wear anything from a long dress to dressy separates to a formal cocktail dress. The best way to figure out what to wear is to dress according to what you expect the host to wear. Attending a high-end wedding? Then wear a gown. If, on the other hand, you’re going to a work function that calls for black tie, it’s more appropriate to wear a little black dress with a statement jewelry.

Foolproof Outfit: A long gown for women and a black tuxedo for men.

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DRESS CODE: BLACK TIE OPTIONAL

One of the murkier dress codes, men are given the option of either wearing a tuxedo or a dark suit and a tie. Because men are given the option of dressing in a more casual manner, the dress code is more open for women too, who can wear anything from a long dress to a cocktail number. Think of it like this: You aren’t expected to look as if you’re en route the Oscars, but you should still make an effort with formal attire.

Foolproof Outfit: An ankle-grazing dress and statement jewelry for women and a black suit with a bow tie for men.

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DRESS CODE: CREATIVE BLACK TIE

“Creative black tie” is the dress code that allows you to have fun. Men, for instance, should feel free to wear a black shirt or a red bow tie—something other than the cookie-cutter penguin suit. Women are similarly encouraged to take their look less seriously. Still confused? Think of creative black tie as trendy black tie. Oftentimes, creative black tie is the expectation at theme parties with a dress code like “1920s Black Tie” or “Texas Black Tie”, and in those cases, choose a dressy look that works with the theme. For instance, with a dress code that calls for Texas Black Tie, a man would be dressed appropriately in a tuxedo, bolo tie, and cowboy boots, and a woman could wear a gown and a cowboy hat.

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Foolproof Outfit: A formal-but-trendy gown for women and a tuxedo with a black shirt for men.

DRESS CODE: COCKTAIL

For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and feminine.

Foolproof Outfit: A LBD for women and a suit and tie for men.

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DRESS CODE: FESTIVE

A dress code that tends to pop up on invitations around the holidays, festive attire is similar to cocktail attire, but with a holiday bent—say a sparkly sequin dress or a red satin skirt.

Foolproof Outfit: A sequin party dress for women and a suit and holiday-themed tie for men.

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DRESS CODE: BUSINESS FORMAL

The dress code suggestion at many daytime semi-formal events (particularly work lunches and conferences), this dress code calls for a suit and tie for the guys and a tailored dress or a pantsuit for women. The idea is to wear something business appropriate that also feels dressed-up.

Foolproof Outfit: A pantsuit for women and a suit and tie for men.

DRESS CODE: BUSINESS CASUAL

Most corporate offices have a dress code that calls for business casual. For women, pants and a blazer, or a pencil skirt and a fun blouse is the way to go. Guys can wears slacks or chinos and a collared shirt. Absolutely no jeans or sneakers.

Foolproof Outfit: Black trousers and a tweed blazer for women and khaki pants and a collared shirt (tucked in) for men.

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DRESS CODE: CASUAL DRESSY

This dress code calls for a just slightly dressier version of your most casual look. For women, dress up your go-to pair of pants with a fun pair of ankle boots, add heels to elevate flared jeans, or pair a jumpsuit with a collared shirt. For guys, dress up your favorite pair of jeans with a blazer and you’ll be good to go.

Foolproof Outfit: Black pants, a blouse, and ankle boots for women, and jeans and a sport coat for men.

DRESS CODE: CASUAL

Anything goes in this case, including jeans and sneakers, and this dress code usually means you’ll be uncomfortable in anything too dressy.

Foolproof Outfit: Jeans and sneakers for men and women.

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