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Decoded: Most Common Dress Codes

Everybody’s been there: you receive an invitation with a dress code that feels cryptic and impossible. Check out this guide to the most common dress codes.

It’s a situation everyone has been in once or twice in their lives. An invitation comes in the mail for a gathering, party, wedding, or other big event, and the dress code section only lists one style of dress and provides no examples or suggestions. The fear of showing up to an event with an outfit that doesn’t blend well with the rest of the guests is a real concern for many party-goers. Check out this guide to the most common dress codes—decoded.

Casual (and all its modifiers)

When the dress code uses the word “casual,” it may mean a range of things. Though you may see “casual” on the invitation, don’t automatically assume you can show up in your finest sweatsuit, as that would be unconventional interpretations of the word casual. Yes, this is confusing. How else does one describe a sweatsuit besides casual?”


When an event requests casual dress, it generally does not mean loungewear or anything a person would wear to lay around their house. At an event, “casual” typically means a nice outfit that looks put together and fashion-forward, but doesn’t necessarily require formal slacks, a blazer, or a gown. A pair of nice pants and a nice, casual top (no t-shirts!) is a great casual outfit. A nice sundress is also a good option for casual attire. 


KarenLeBlancLifestyleTearSheetSmart-casual is just a little step above casual on the formality scale. For smart-casual, you can simply take a regular casual outfit and add a few stylish or formal items. Take a nice shirt and chinos or a clean pair of dark wash jeans and add a watch or a pair of stylish heels.

Business casual

Business casual typically has a more formal feel, with one remaining element of casual attire. So, wear a suit, but replace either the pants or the jacket with a more casual item. Some examples include pairing a blazer with a nice shirt and a pair of non-ripped jeans, formal shoes, and jewelry.

The Range of Formality

Formal outfits also come in a bit of a range. When the dress code calls for formal, make sure you know how formal they mean.


Young woman in a formal dress ready to go to her quinceanera. Sweet 16
Young woman in a formal dress ready to go to her quinceanera. Sweet 16

General formal wear is very similar to what a person would wear to an important business dinner. This means a full suit or a formal dress. The dress can be of any length but shouldn’t be classified as a gown, as this is too formal for this occasion.


Cocktail attire can include a wide range of items. For women, it typically means a formal dress that has a hem just above the knee. For men, it can be anything from nice jeans and a suit jacket to a full suit. Cocktail attire gives guests a bit of creative freedom while still expecting class and style.

Black tie, white tie, oh my!

Stylish groom in blue suit, with bow tie and boutonniere
Stylish groom in blue suit with boutonniere with pink rose holding bow tie and posing near window in hotel room. Morning preparation before wedding ceremony

The difference between black tie and white tie seems clear cut, but there are a few more differences than meets the eye.

Black tie

A black-tie affair requires a tuxedo or a formal gown. This is generally as formal as most events will require. Most people will not attend a white tie event in their lives.

White tie

White tie is as formal as formal gets. Such an event requires a tuxedo with longer tails, a white fabric vest, a white bow tie, and a white winged shirt for men and full ball gowns with perfectly styled vintage and antique jewelry for women.

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Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a travel host and writer with a popular travel show, The Design Tourist, and a companion lifestyle blog. As a widely published travel journalist and content creator, Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association. She also serves as the Design and Travel editor of the national lifestyle magazine, LaPalme. Karen believes that every destination has a story to tell through its local art, architecture, culture, and craft. This immersive creative exploration begins with authentic accommodations where the narrative of place unfolds through art, accessories, accouterments, furnishings, fixtures, and food. 

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