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Dress Code Dictionary

by Anne Middleton, on April 22nd, 2015

If you’ve ever unwittingly walked into an ostentatious fete wearing denim capris and sandals, only to be greeted by swarmed out ladies in haute couture, you know how important it is to understand dress codes. But sometimes dress code terminology is confounding. Does anyone really know what Winter White dress really is? To help you know what to wear fro every occasion, here’s a handy guide to the most common dress codes.

Casual – Though it is by far the most laid-back of dress codes, a casual dress code does not constitute permission to show up on bootie shorts and a tank top. Keep loungewear at home and make sure you are well dressed for all your public outings. Casual wear is generally for weekends and vacations. This is the time to pull out shorts, capris and tees. For footwear, try Nike fitness shoes or UGG boots for comfy yet totally stylish options.

One common variation on the typical casual code is Resort Casual.  Sadly, this doesn’t mean to slip into your bikini. Resort Casual is slightly dressier than plain casual with a bit of vacation vibe. Think Bermuda shorts, golf-style clothing, and sundresses all in tropical motifs and vivid hues.

Dressy Casual and Business Casual – Not understanding these two codes is why your coworkers keeps admonished for showing up on casual Friday in ripped jeans. These two dress codes are both the most common and the most confusing. They are very close to the same thing, with a slight twist depending on the venue and event. Dressy Casual is what you would wear to a mid-level restaurant, sports bar or country club. It’s also appropriate for everyday wear. Dark denim, silk blouses, dressy tees topped with cardigans or casual jackets, maxi skirts all fit in nearly here. Tie the look together with comfy Converse, ballet flats and smoking flats.

Business casual put a professional twist to things. Many more relaxed companies, especially in the technology sector, are opting for this code fulltime while other make it acceptable on Fridays only. To take your casual wear to this level, skip the denim and opt for slacks and a blouse along with conservative jewelry and pumps or dressy flats

Business or Business Formal – Another commonly confused set of dress codes is the two workplace stalwarts, Business and Business Formal. Most offices adhere to the former, while the latter is still de rigueur in some prestigious law firms, government offices and financial establishments.

Business attire for ladies calls for mix-and match separates for pencil skirts, dressy slacks, silk blouses and blazers. Business formal is even more stick and a matched suit is required. While a pantsuit may be acceptable, the skirt suit is considered the pentacle of this spectrum. 

Cocktail – Cocktail attire is usually reserved for, obviously, cocktail parties. You are also likely to encounter this code at office holiday parties and many weddings. For ladies, a short or knee-length dress is the way to go. This is where the much-praised little black dress comes in handy. Buy one of these style staples and you are ready for every cocktail-attired event for the next decade. Just add new accessories, like statement necklaces, oversized rings and colorful heels from Boston Proper, to create a new look each time.

Formal or Black Tie – Let’s wrap things up at the top of the scale with the strictest dress code most of us will ever see on an invitation. Technically, White Tie is even fancier, but it’s also very rare so unless you expect to attend a state banquet with Her Majesty, you can probably ignore it.

Formal and Black Tie events often include things like ultra swanky weddings and charity galas. For ladies, this code calls for a long gown, glittering jewelry and heels. If an invitation calls for formal wear, expect to see luxe dresses in bold, fun shades and the hottest trends. However, Black Tie tends to be a bit more conservative, so opt for a neutral of metallic shade to stay on the safe side.

Occasionally an invitation will state that the event is Black Tie Optional, sending guests into a panic. Is it or isn’t it Black Tie?  This phrasing generally indicates that the host will be adhering to a Black Tie dress code and invites you to as well, but it is not mandatory. Usually hosts wish to have an upscale event but not want quest to go to the expense or trouble of purchasing formal wear. So, if you have a gown, pull it out of the crevices of the closet, but it not, opt for the most lavish thing you currently own.