Invitation Dress Codes

By Jill Bremer, AICI CIP

An invitation has arrived in the mail for a wedding or social event.  You’ve RSVP’d, bought a gift, arranged for a babysitter, and then it hits you – WHAT WILL YOU WEAR?!  Hopefully, the host or hostess has left a clue on the invitation itself by offering one of the following designations.  Take a look, then read on.  What follows is your dress code translation guide.

White Tie

Men wear a black coat with tails and white pique vest.  This is worn over a white formal shirt with white pique bow tie and black patent leather shoes.  Men often carry white gloves.  Women should only wear long, formal evening gowns.  Long gloves are often worn, as well.  A woman may keep her gloves on during cocktails, when dancing, and when going through the receiving line; gloves should be removed during dinner.

Black Tie

The best choice for women is the long evening gown.  Women may also choose to wear dressy evening separates.  Men wear the traditional black tuxedo with formal white shirt, black bow tie, and black cummerbund.  Men may also choose to add their own flair to their tux by wearing a traditional style tie (usually in silver or gold), or colored bow ties and cummerbunds.  Nontraditional style shirts and jackets are often worn on the “Red Carpet” and to events labeled “Creative Black Tie.”

Black Tie Optional

If men choose not to wear a traditional tuxedo, they should wear a very dark suit with a white dress shirt and conservative tie.  Women can wear either a short or long cocktail dress or dressy dinner suit.

Formal, Informal

“Formal” and “Informal” are two terms borrowed from the realm of weddings and there is often confusion surrounding them.  The time of day determines the dress.

  • If the event or wedding is held before 6 p.m., women may wear a tailored suit or pretty daytime dress (avoid black before 6:00).  If it’s a religious wedding, bring a wrap to cover bare shoulders.  Men may wear a traditional business suit, shirt, and tie (dark colors for winter, lighter colors for summer) or a blazer, dress slacks, and tie.  One never wears formal attire before 6 p.m., except for members of a wedding party.
  • For an event after 6 p.m., men wear dark suits or dinner jackets; women should wear a cocktail dress, dressy evening separates, or dinner suit.  Black is fine to wear after 6:00.
  • For an event labeled “Informal”, even if it’s after 6 p.m., you may dress as though it’s a before-6 p.m. event.
  • If the invitation requests black or white tie, men and women should follow the guidelines listed for those terms above.

Cocktail Attire

These events call for dark suits for men; cocktail dresses or dressy pantsuits for women.

Many invitations now arrive with their own creative terminology.  What follows are some ideas for decoding these unusual dress codes.

Urban Chic

You’ll be safe wearing lots of black, leather and/or denim.  Think New York.  Extremes are often seen at these events – mini-skirts, extra-low waist jeans, extra-wide pant legs, etc.

Casual Chic

Think comfort-meets-trends.  Denim will probably play a part in most people’s outfits.  Wear with your hippest shoe or boot.

Dressy Casual

This calls for nice quality casual clothes, no jeans or shorts.


This invitation usually has a theme attached, such as a luau or Independence Day. Have fun and choose clothing that reflects the theme.

When in doubt about what to wear, call the host or hostess!

© 2007 Jill Bremer