The Reader’s Digest Guide to Dressing Properly for Every Occasion

You’ve just been invited to a wedding, party or business event. Here’s a handy guide to help you decide what to wear, depending on the dress code.

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White tie dress code
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Dress code: White tie

Definition: The most formal dress code, typically reserved for events such as state dinners and the Academy Awards.

  • Women: Wear a formal, floor-length evening gown. Go all out with your most dramatic shoes and jewelry.
  • Men: Wear a tuxedo, a long black jacket with tails, a white collared shirt, a white vest, a white bow tie, and black patent-leather shoes. White or grey gloves are appropriate.
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Black tie dress code
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Dress code: Black tie

Definition: Less dressy than white tie, but still pretty formal, and usually reserved for evening affairs.

  • Women: Wear a floor-length evening gown, a knee-length dress with heels, or your dressiest black dress. Dressy separates, like a knee-length skirt and shell set, also work.
  • Men: Wear a tuxedo, a black bow tie, a black cummerbund or vest, and black patent-leather shoes. In the summer or on a cruise, a white dinner jacket with black tuxedo pants would be appropriate, along with the rest of the black-tie wardrobe.
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creative black tie
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Dress code: Creative black tie

Definition: Formal, but with a trendy twist.

  • Women: Skip the modest gown in favour of a more fun, but still formal dress. You can also wear a formal knee-length dress, a satin ball-gown skirt with a cashmere sweater or blouse, or tuxedo pants with a silk top. Your jewelry and accessories should be fun and unique.
  • Men: Wear a tuxedo combined with trendy or whimsical items, such as a black shirt or a coloured or patterned bow tie with a matching cummerbund.
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Formal or black tie optional
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Dress code: Formal or black tie optional

Definition: Slightly less formal than black tie.

  • Women: Wear a floor-length gown, a knee-length cocktail dress or little black dress with heels, or a dressy suit.
  • Men: Wear a dark suit and tie with dressy leather shoes, or a tuxedo.

Check out 5 Ways to Wear a Dark Lip with Confidence.

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Semi-formal dress code
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Dress code: Semi-formal

Definition: Somewhere between formal and casual, depending on the time of the event.

  • Women: Wear a knee-length cocktail dress, a little black dress, a dressy skirt and top, or even slacks with a dressy blouse.
  • Men: Wear a suit and tie in a dark or light colour, depending on the season and the time of day, or dress pants with a collared shirt and jacket. Add dressy leather shoes.

Check out how to Dress for Success On a Shoestring Budget.

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Dress codes defined
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Dress code: Cocktail attire

Definition: Festive and fun, but not formal.

  • Women: Wear a knee-length dress, or even dress pants or a skirt with a nice blouse.
  • Men: Wear a jacket and slacks, with or without a tie. Colours or patterns can be a bit bolder than with semi-formal attire.

Wait! Before you take your dress or jacket to the dry cleaner, read this.

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Dress codes defined
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Dress code: Business casual

DefinitionCasual, but work-appropriate.

  • Women: Wear dress pants, a casual dress, or a skirt with a nice blouse. Stay away from spaghetti straps or plunging necklines.
  • Men: Wear khakis or dress pants with a collared shirt and loafers (or loafer-style shoes). You can also add a sport coat or blazer.
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casual dress code
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Dress code: Casual

Definition: Anything goes, but stay away from denim jeans, shorts, and tank tops for bigger events (casual weddings included).

  • Women: Wear a sundress, a skirt or pants with a pretty top.
  • Men: Wear khakis with a button-down, a sweater, or a polo shirt.

Sources:,,, Ladies’ Home Journal,

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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